In April 1963, civil rights activists led by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Birgmingham civil rights leader Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth launched a major direct action campaign in Birmingham, Alabama, which King described as "the most segregated city in America." The campaign targeted the city's segregation system by putting pressure on merchants during the traditionally lucrative Easter shopping season. In addition to the boycott of downtown merchants, a series of mass meetings were held to spread the movement's philosophy of non-violence and to encourage volunteers to participate in lunch counter sit-ins, marches on City Hall, sit-ins at the library, kneel-ins at churches, and a march on the county building to register voters. Shuttlesworth's organization, the Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights (ACMHR), issued the "Birmingham Manifesto" which called the campaign "a moral witness to give our community a chance to survive."
On April 12, 1963, King was arrested and spent eight days in jail, from where he wrote his famous "Letter from Birmingham Jail," in response to local religious leaders' criticism of the campaign in the Birmingham newspaper.
On May 2, 1963, a month after the start of protests in Birmingham, the Children's Crusade began. More than 1,000 African American students marched toward downtown Birmingham and hundreds were arrested. When hundreds more gathered to march the next day, Birmingham's ardently segregationist commissioner of public safety, Eugene "Bull" Connor, directed police and fire departments to use force to break up the demonstrations. Images of adults and children being blasted by high-pressure fire hoses, clubbed by police, and attacked by police dogs appeared all over newspapers and television broadcasts, triggering national and international outrage.
Meanwhile, the decline in business and the adverse publicity weakened the resolve of the white business establishment in Birmingham, making them agree to participate in negotiations with prominent black citizens facilitated by a representative from Attorney General Robert Kennedy's office. By May 10, 1963, an agreement was in place that would remove "Whites Only" and "Blacks Only" signs in restrooms and on drinking fountains and would put in place a plan to desegregate lunch counters, along with other ongoing measures, including the formation of a biracial committee to monitor the progress of the agreement.
Birmingham segregationists responded to the agreement with a series of bombings, leading President John F. Kennedy to send 3,000 federal troops into position near Birmingham and to make plans to federalize the Alabama National Guard. Tragically, reactionary white violence returned to Birmingham a few months later, when Ku Klux Klan members bombed the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church on September 15, 1963, killing four young African American girls.
Dr. Martin Luther King later credited the events of the Birmingham Campaign as inspiring the eventual passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which established the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission to address race and sex discrimination in employment and a Community Relations Service to help local communities solve racial disputes. It also authorized federal intervention to ensure the desegregation of schools, parks, swimming pools, and other public facilities and restricted the use of literacy tests as a requirement for voter registration.
Learn more about the history of the Civil Rights Movement in Birmingham at your Milwaukee Public Library.