“Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere… whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.”
These lines are from Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” which he wrote in 1963 after being jailed for violating an order not to protest. That protest was part of the Birmingham Campaign.
Birmingham Campaign (1963)
The Birmingham Campaign was one of the most significant campaigns of the civil rights movement. Lasting through the spring of 1963 in Birmingham, Alabama, the campaign aimed to draw national attention to attempts to desegregate the city. Demonstrators used protests, sit-ins, marches, boycotts, and several other tactics to fight for integration. Their activism caused major advances in the desegregation of the city and helped lead to the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
In early 1963, Martin Luther King Jr. and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, or SCLC, traveled to Birmingham, Alabama. There, they joined activist and minister Fred Shuttlesworth and his organization, the Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights, in fighting to dismantle Birmingham’s systems of segregation. King’s friend and fellow civil rights leader Ralph Abernathy helped lead the campaign as well.
Their campaign began on April 3. Demonstrators attended mass meetings, staged lunch counter sit-ins, marched on City Hall, and boycotted downtown merchants. However, they hit some obstacles: the campaign received little news coverage, the Black establishment in the city viewed Shuttlesworth as too aggressive, and much of the community was reluctant to join the campaign.
Despite this, King’s speeches about the importance of nonviolent protest steadily attracted more participants. These demonstrators staged kneel-ins at churches, sit-ins at a library, and marched on a county building to register more voters. In the process, hundreds were arrested.
On April 10, the Birmingham city government acquired a state circuit court injunction - a type of warning or order - against the protests. After much debate, the campaign leaders decided to disobey the court order and continue demonstrating. “We cannot in all good conscience obey such an injunction which is an unjust, undemocratic and unconstitutional misuse of the legal process,” King declared. Leaders were, however, concerned about arrests. They did not have enough money to pay cash bonds, so they could not guarantee that people who were arrested would be released.
King struggled with whether he should join the protests and risk being sent to jail. The campaign needed his help with fundraising, but he worried that not being arrested would hurt his credibility. He decided to take the risk and was arrested for violating the injunction on April 12. In jail, he penned “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” an open letter to clergymen who had criticized the protests. In the letter, King argued for the importance of breaking unjust laws through direct action. He was released on bail after eight days.
King’s arrest, however, did not help the campaign much. The demonstrators still had not earned national attention or desegregated the city. SCLC organizer James Bevel proposed a Children’s Crusade to re-energize the movement. On May 2, over a thousand young Black schoolchildren marched into downtown Birmingham. Hundreds were arrested. When they marched again the next day, Commissioner Eugene “Bull” Connor ordered local officials to use force against them. The children were hit with high-pressure fire hoses and water cannons, clubbed by police, and attacked by police dogs. Images of the brutality appeared on TV and in newspapers, sparking outrage across the country.
The Children’s Crusade helped convince President John F. Kennedy to send Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights Burke Marshall to Alabama to help negotiate an end to the demonstrations. Birmingham’s Senior Citizens Council, which acted as the city’s business leadership, asked for the protests to end as an act of good faith before they would agree to a compromise. Marshall urged the protesters to agree.
On May 8, King told negotiators he would order the street protests to stop. Shuttlesworth, who was in the hospital after being injured while protesting, was furious when he found out. Despite Shuttlesworth’s vehement objections, King ended the demonstrations but indicated they could begin again if negotiations were unsuccessful.
On May 10, a compromise was reached. According to the agreement, Birmingham officials would remove “whites only” and “blacks only” signs in bathrooms and drinking fountains in downtown Birmingham, desegregate lunch counters, implement a plan to help Black individuals find jobs, release jailed protesters, and establish a biracial committee to monitor the agreement.
The compromise was a significant victory for the civil rights movement. Unsurprisingly, segregationists were furious and expressed their anger violently. In the days after the agreement was reached, segregationists bombed both King’s brother’s house and a motel room in which King and other SCLC leaders had stayed a few days before. A few months later, on September 15, the KKK bombed Birmingham’s 16th Street Baptist Church, which had been used as a meeting place during the campaign. The blast killed four young Black girls: Addie Mae Collins, Cynthia Wesley, Carole Robertson, and Carol Denise McNair. At a joint funeral for three of them, King called the girls “the martyred heroines of a holy crusade for freedom and human dignity.”
The Birmingham Campaign was one of the most significant demonstrations of the civil rights movement. Not only did it make major strides in desegregating Birmingham, it also heightened national attention to the segregation, discrimination, and hatred faced by Black Americans. The public was horrified by the brutal treatment of young children during the Children’s Crusade and by the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church. National outcry helped push President Kennedy to introduce legislation that would eventually become the Civil Rights Act of 1964.