Sometimes daily learning requires more than a superficial observation and conclusion. One facet of the Civil Rights Movement that has had me pondering since our visit to Birmingham has to do with the events of spring, 1963. I had to do some research in order to figure out what to think. Today’s post is longer and more complex than most, but sometimes you just have to follow where curiosity leads.
In 1955, the Alabama State legislature passed a law known as the Mayor-Council Act of 1955 to define a new structure of municipal government for the City of Birmingham. The new form of government would have a mayor and a nine-member city council. This new structure would replace a 3-member “commissioner” form of government that had been in place previously. This change in governmental structure was adopted specifically to address the racial tensions that were current in the city. It was an effort to place the city’s government closer to the people. The first election under this new structure took place in March, 1963. The first elected mayor was Albert Boutwell, who was a political moderate. At this time, the commissioners, led by commissioner Bull Connor refused to leave office and sued to have the results of the election overturned. They argued that the vote was unduly influenced by the city’s 10,000 voting Negroes. For a period of time, there were two governments vying for control of Birmingham’s government.
It was in April, 1963, at the same time as this dispute over government power, that the “Birmingham Campaign,” or Project C, (for confrontation), was launched by the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (Martin Luther King) and the Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights (Fred Shuttlesworth). On April 10, 1963, the city government obtained an injunction against the protests, and it was this injunction that King and others disobeyed, leading to King’s incarceration in the Birmingham jail – the infamous incarceration during which he wrote the “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.” Which city government obtained the injunction – the Commissioners (Bull Connor), or the newly-elected mayor and council? Clearly it was Bull Connor who saw to it that King was jailed.
While King was in jail, and in the midst of this dispute over government power and legitimacy, a group of white clergy published a letter  addressed to King and the protestors. In this letter they called King and the protestors to task for the wisdom and timing of their demonstrations. It appears to me that they felt that the interests of civil rights would be better served if the protestors would wait for a resolution of the city government dispute.
The following statement in the white clergy’s letter to King indicate that they were hopeful that the election of a new mayor and city council to replace Bull Connor and the commissioner form of government might make a difference: “In Birmingham, recent public events have given indication that we will have opportunity for a new constructive and realistic approach to racial problems.”
Continuing on with their letter, the following paragraph hints at local, behind-the-scenes, sensitive negotiations that outsiders would not be privy to, and which could be threatened by an ongoing campaign. “We agree rather with certain local Negro leadership which has called for honest and open negotiation of racial issues in our area. And we believe this kind of facing of issues can best be accomplished by citizens of our own metropolitan area, white and Negro, meeting with their knowledge and experience of the local situation. All of us need to face that responsibility and find proper channels for its accomplishment.”
Further, in the following, they again refer to current events, the outcome of which could change the political situation for the better: “We do not believe that these days of new hope are days when extreme measures are justified in Birmingham.”(italics added for emphasis)
The events of spring 1963, including the Project C demonstrations, King’s jailing, the children’s crusade, the firehoses and dogs brought to bear against protesting children, the bombings of homes and churches, all took place while Bull Connor was refusing to give up power after the election of a moderate mayor and city council.
In light of the points made in the letter from the white clergy, and in light of the disputed government in Birmingham at the time, I began to question the wisdom of MLK and Shuttlesworth in the timing of their Project C demonstrations. Wouldn’t it have been better all around to avoid confrontation with Bull Connor until the legitimacy of the new mayor and new city council were established by the courts?
In his letter, King makes the following arguments:
- he is “non-local,” but he has organizational ties to Birmingham, and his presence was requested by those organizational ties
- he is “non-local,” but injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere
- he draws attention to the longstanding racial injustices present in Birmingham
- he traces the recent (months-long) history of preparation for the Eastertime protests
- he acknowledges the election and the importance of defeating Bull Connor; he notes that they twice delayed their direct action in order to see what the results of the election would be; they felt they could delay no longer (but he doesn’t say why, and he doesn’t mention the dispute or the two-government dilemma)
- he explains the need for tension, created by non-violent direct action, in order to create an atmosphere of negotiation
- he addresses the issue of timing, and discusses the new government of Birmingham; he notes that Boutwell is in fact “a much more gentle person than Connor,” but he notes that individuals may make moral decisions, but that groups are worse than individuals and seldom give up power voluntarily
- he turns the request to “wait” into a treatise on the 340+ year history of African-American suffering
- he discusses his view of the moral imperative to disobey unjust laws
- he provides a lengthy and thorough explanation of the difference between just and unjust laws, including attention to the fact that Negroes had not been permitted to vote on Alabama’s legislature and were thus not represented
- he notes the difficulty of working with moderates who prefer order to justice
- he discusses the difference between active engagement toward justice as compared to merely waiting for justice
- he explains his position as standing in between the two opposing components of the Negro community – the complacency of those who have given up on one hand and the militancy of the Muslim nationalists on the other
- he explains why non-violent protest is not extremist
- he notes his deep disappointment with the white Christian church in general, in spite of his love for the church; a great deal of the letter is addressed to the complacency of the church
- he takes them to task for their praise of the Birmingham police for maintaining order; he informs them of the horrible way they’ve treated Negroes when out of the public light; he notes the fact that moral means for an immoral end (acting nonviolently in order to maintain the injustice of segregation) is wrong
From the contents of King’s letter I can see that the timing of the events of spring, 1963 were not, in fact, ill-advised. It becomes clear that the protestors knew what they were doing, and that they intentionally used the extremism of Bull Connor to their advantage. By confronting Bull Connor and provoking his outrageous response, they brought national and international media attention to their cause. The outrage expressed by the rest of the nation was outrage against the actions and tactics of Bull Connor. Without this national attention, they likely would never have gotten the intervention of the Kennedy administration that was so helpful to their cause.
This view squares with something that a white, elderly librarian told me during our visit to the Birmingham library. She was a young person in spring, 1963. She told me that her family had hired, black domestic help, and she one day was expressing to the maid that she was disgusted by what Bull Connor was doing. The maid’s response was that he is doing the cause of civil rights much more good than harm because he’s showing the world how outrageous segregation really is.
My conclusion? It is difficult to truly understand the Letter from a Birmingham Jail without a robust understanding of the context in which it was written. When our high school curricula indicate that we should teach that MLK advocated non-violence, we are only scratching the surface of what he was all about. When our high school curricula merely state that he wrote a letter while he was jailed (if they even do mention this letter), we risk trivializing what the letter was meant to convey.
I know that there is way too much American history to fit into our already-crowded high school curricula, but can’t we do a better job on this material, at least?