America in Ferment: The Tumultuous 1960s
|Digital History ID 3326|
By the end of 1961, protests against segregation, job discrimination, and police brutality had erupted from Georgia to Mississippi and from Tennessee to Alabama. Staunch segregationists responded by vowing to defend segregation. The symbol of unyielding resistance to integration was George C. Wallace, a former state judge and a one-time state Golden Gloves featherweight boxing champion. Elected on an extreme segregationist platform, Wallace promised to "stand in the schoolhouse door" and go to jail before permitting integration. At his inauguration in January 1963, Wallace declared: "I draw the line in the dust and toss the gauntlet before the feet of tyranny, and I say segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever."
It was in Birmingham, Alabama, that civil rights activists faced the most determined resistance. A sprawling steel town of 340,000, Birmingham had a long history of racial acrimony. In open defiance of Supreme Court rulings, Birmingham had closed its 38 public playgrounds, 8 swimming pools, and 4 golf courses rather than integrate them. Calling Birmingham "the most thoroughly segregated city in the United States," the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. announced in early 1963 that he would lead demonstrations in the city until demands for fair hiring practices and desegregation were met.
Day after day, well-dressed and carefully groomed men, women, and children marched against segregation--only to be jailed for demonstrating without a permit. On April 12, King himself was arrested; while in jail he wrote his now-famous "Letter from Birmingham City Jail," a scathing attack on a group of white clergymen who asked black Americans to wait patiently for equal rights. On pieces of toilet paper and newspaper margins, King wrote, "I am convinced that if your white brothers dismiss us as `rabble rousers' and 'outside agitators'--those of us who are working through the channels of nonviolent direct action--and refuse to support our nonviolent efforts, millions of Negroes, out of frustration and despair, will seek solace and security in black nationalist ideologies, a development that will lead inevitably to a frightening racial nightmare."
For two weeks, all was quiet; but in early May, demonstrations resumed with renewed vigor. On May 2 and again on May 3, more than a thousand of Birmingham's black youth marched for equal rights. In response, Birmingham's police chief, Theophilus Eugene "Bull" Connor, unleashed police dogs on the children and sprayed them with fire hoses with 700 pounds of pressure. Watching the willful brutality on television, millions of Americans, white and black, were shocked by the face of segregation.
Tension mounted as police arrested 2,543 blacks and whites between May 2, 1963 and May 7, 1963. Under intense pressure, the Birmingham Chamber of Commerce reached an agreement on May 9 with black leaders to desegregate public facilities in 90 days, to hire blacks as clerks and salespersons in 60 days, and to release demonstrators without bail in return for an end to the protests.
King's goal was nonviolent social change, but the short-term results of the protests were violence and confrontation. On May 11, white extremists firebombed an integrated motel. That same night, a bomb destroyed the home of King's brother. Shooting incidents and racial confrontations quickly spread across the South. In June, an assassin, armed with a Springfield rifle, ambushed 37-year-old Medgar Evers, the NAACP field representative in Mississippi, and shot him in the back. In September, an explosion destroyed Birmingham's Sixteenth Street Baptist Church, killing four black girls and injuring 14 others. Segregationists had planted 10 to 15 sticks of dynamite under the steps of the 50-year-old church building. That same day, a 16-year-old black Birmingham youth was shot from behind by a police shotgun, and a 13-year-old boy was shot while riding his bicycle. All told, 10 people died during racial protests in 1963, 35 black homes and churches were firebombed, and 20,000 people were arrested during civil rights protests.