(TIME, May 17, 1963) -- The blaze of bombs, the flash of blades, the eerie glow of fire, the keening cries of hatred, the wild dance of terror in the night -- all this was Birmingham, Ala.
Birmingham's Negroes had always seemed a docile lot. Downtown at night, they slouched in gloomy huddles beneath street lamps, talking softly or not at all. They knew their place: they were "niggers" in a Jim Crow town, and they bore their degradation in silence.
But last week they smashed that image forever. The scenes in Birmingham were unforgettable. There was the Negro youth, sprawled on his back and spinning across the pavement, while firemen battered him with streams of water so powerful that they could strip bark off trees. There was the Negro woman, pinned to the ground by cops, one of them with his knee dug into her throat. There was the white man who watched hymn-singing Negroes burst from a sweltering church and growled: "We ought to shoot every damned one of them." And there was the little Negro girl, splendid in a newly starched dress, who marched out of a church, looked toward a massed line of pistol-packing cops, and called to a laggard friend: "Hurry up, Lucille. If you stay behind, you won't get arrested with our group."
Finally, outlined against the flames that shot 150 ft. in the air, there was the mass of Negroes barring with their bodies and with a rain of rocks, bottles and bricks the firemen who had rushed to save a white man's store.
For more than a month, Negro demonstrations in Birmingham had sputtered, bursting occasionally into flames, then flickering out. Martin Luther King, the Negroes' inspirational but sometimes inept leader, had picked this bastion of racial inequity for the crusade, "because Birmingham is the symbol of segregation." In the last six years, there have been 18 racial bombings (Negroes call it "Bombingham") and more than 50 cross-burnings. Schools are totally segregated. So are restaurants, drinking fountains, toilets. Birmingham gave up its professional baseball team rather than have it playing integrated teams in the International League. The Metropolitan Opera Company no longer visits the city, because officials refused to integrate the municipal auditorium. Parks were shut down last year because officials would not integrate them after a court order.
Unquestionably, Birmingham was the toughest segregation town in the South, from the Negroes' viewpoint. And it was symbolized by Public Safety Commissioner Eugene ("Bull") Connor, who had cowed Negroes for 23 years with hoarse threats and club-swinging cops. It was against Connor's Birmingham that King began secretly recruiting volunteers just before last Christmas.
King and Connor clashed head-on. The commissioner had his cops -- plus a pack of snarling police dogs and a battery of high- pressure fire hoses. The Negro minister had only the determination and courage of his people. He had mobilized school- children for his freedom parades. Hundreds of kids were in jail, and, as least week began, Birmingham was at the point of explosion.
"Forgive Them." On Sunday, the Negroes tried, as they had before, to worship in white churches. But segregation in Birmingham's Christian churches is nearly as rigid as in public toilets: Negroes got into four churches, were ordered away from 17 others. Late in the afternoon, King called a mass meeting at the New Pilgrim Baptist Church. Outside, Bull Connor massed 50 policemen and a fire truck with water pressure cranked up to 700 lbs. When the crowd of 1,000 poured out of the church just before dusk, they lined up and marched toward the police. A police captain demanded their parade permit. They had none. Seeing the fire hoses, they knelt in silence as a Negro minister solemnly began to pray: "Let them turn their water on. Let them use their dogs. We are not leaving. Forgive them, O Lord."
Suddenly, inexplicably, in a moment of overt mercy, Bull Connor waved the Negroes through the police line. He allowed them 15 minutes of hymns and prayer in a small park near the city jail; inside, behind bars, hundreds of other Negroes could hear the singing. Returning to the church, the demonstrators were told that Negro children would march again next day -- and should carry their toothbrushes with them to use in jail.
The march began a few minutes past 1 o'clock, led by Comedian Dick Gregory, from the 16th Street Baptist Church. When a policeman demanded his parade permit, Gregory spoke softly -- in contrast to his wise cracking smart talk to cops during last month's Greenwood, Miss., voting registration demonstrations. Gregory and 18 teenagers in his protest platoon were herded into a paddy wagon. In squads of 20, 30, and 40, more youngsters left the church, were shoved into paddy wagons and taken to jail. Bull Connor arrived and yelled at a police captain: "I told you these sons of bitches ought to be watered down." That night, to shouts of "Amen, brother, amen," a King aide cried: "War has been declared in Birmingham. War has been declared on segregation."
The Negro leaders intended it to be a particular, pacific kind of war. King had preached Gandhi's nonviolent protest gospel ever since he arrived in Birmingham. The demonstrations were meant to be an outgrowth of the passive sit-ins and bus boycotts mounted in other Southern cities. But not every Negro in Birmingham remained so placid before Bull Connor's ferocity.
"Those Black Apes." So there was violence. It began shortly after noon the next day. Connor's cops were relaxed, eating sandwiches and sipping soft drinks. They were caught by surprise when the doors of the 16th Street church were flung open and 2,500 Negroes swarmed out. The Negroes surged across Kelly Ingram Park, burst through the police line, and descended on downtown Birmingham. Yelling and singing, they charged in and out of department stores, jostled whites on the streets, paralyzed traffic.
Recovering, the police got reinforcements. Firemen hooked up their hoses. Motorcycles and squad cars, sirens blaring, rushed into the area. Two policemen grabbed a Negro, shoved him against a storefront -- and found themselves caught inside a glowering circle of 300 Negroes. A voice growled menacingly: "Let's free him." But demonstration leaders quickly broke into the circle and managed to save the policemen.
The riot ebbed -- and then, an hour later, exploded again. In Kelly Ingram Park, hundreds of Negroes began lobbing bricks and bottles at the lawmen. A deputy sheriff fell to the pavement, shouting "Those black apes!"
For two hours, the battle raged, but slowly, inexorably, in truck and cars, the police closed in on the park. The Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth, one of King's top advisers, yelled helplessly at rioters from in front of the church, finally took a blast of water that slammed him violently against a wall. An ambulance took him away, and when Bull Connor heard about it later, he leered in mock despair: "I waited a week down here to see that, and then I missed it. I wish it had been a hearse."
Now it was over. The Negroes were forced back into the church, and Commissioner Connor glanced at the closed doors. Said he: "If any of those guys in that church there is a preacher, then I'm a watchmaker -- and I've never seen the inside of a watch. They say they're nonviolent? I got three men hurt today. Is that nonviolence?"
That night, Alabama's ultra-segregationist Governor George Wallace sent 600 men to reinforce Bull Connor's weary cops. And Martin Luther King appeared before his followers to say: "We will turn America upside down in order that it turn right side up."
Birmingham had already been upset -- and all but overturned. Downtown merchants, plagued for more than a year by a Negro boycott that was 90% effective, saw their profits plunging even more because of the demonstrations. Birmingham's racist reputation had long been bad enough to frighten away potential industry; rioting by King's forces would further scar the city's image. And, despite the headline-hogging prominence of such racists as Bull Connor and Governor Wallace, there was a significant number of moderates in Birmingham who wanted peace, simply because they believed the Negro indeed deserved better treatment than he was getting. In fact, last month Birmingham had elected Mayor Albert Boutwell, 58, a relatively cool thinker on racial affairs, over Bull Connor.
The Pallid Peace. Even as Negroes fought whites on Birmingham's streets, peace talks were under way. A team of Justice Department lawyers, headed by Assistant Attorney General Burke Marshall, went to Birmingham, began a series of meetings with local businessmen. Of the white negotiators, Martin Luther King made four demands: 1) desegregate all public facilities in department and variety stores; 2) give Negroes equal job opportunities; 3) drop all charges against the 2,500 Negroes who had been arrested during the demonstrations; 4) set up a biracial committee to establish a timetable for reopening parks and other facilities which Birmingham's city fathers had closed to avoid integration.
The first meetings were held in deep secrecy, for the white businessmen involved feared both economic and physical reprisals from redneck hoodlums in Birmingham. Marshall attended nearly all of them. Negroes were represented by a local committee, including A.G. Gaston, one of the U.S.'s few Negro millionaires. Sidney Smyer, a lawyer and real estate man, was the chief spokesman for the whites -- and, at week's end, still the only negotiator from that side who had the courage to permit himself to be publicly identified.
There were meetings on Sunday and Monday -- handled much like union-management negotiations, with representatives bringing results of the conference back to their leaders. To add to the pressure, the crisis spurred dozens of pleading phone calls from Washington and such Administration officials as Bobby Kennedy, Treasury Secretary Douglas Dillon and Defense Secretary Robert McNamara. Finally the businessmen gave halfhearted agreement to King's demands -- but there was no assurance that they could persuade Birmingham's segregationist politicians to go along.
"We'll Kill You." It was a truce -- but there was to be no peace. Saturday night, after a Ku Klux Klan meeting near Birmingham, two dynamite bombs demolished the home of the Rev. A.D. King, brother of Martin King. The minister, his wife and five children raced to safety just before the second blast. Suddenly, the street filled with Negroes. They hurled stones at policemen, slashed car tires. Within the hour two more bombs exploded at the Gaston Motel, headquarters of the demonstrations.
And Birmingham went to war. Thousands of enraged Negroes surged through the streets, flinging bricks, brandishing knives, pummeling policemen. A white cab driver was knifed, his taxi overturned and burned. A policeman was stabbed in the back and a white youngster's arm was slashed from shoulder to elbow. Negroes put a torch to a white man's delicatessen, fought off firemen as they arrived to put out the blaze. Two Negro homes nearby went up in flames, then three more white men's buildings. The rioters, bathed in the flickering orange light of the flames, looted a liquor store and screamed into the night: "White man, we'll kill you!"
Miraculously, there were no deaths. But Bull Connor's cops, frazzled from weeks of pressure, were all but helpless. Negro rioters ruled almost until dawn Sunday and calm came only after 250 Alabama state troopers invaded the city.
As the sun rose Sunday, a sullen peace descended on Birmingham. There had been no winners in a war that had no heroes. Bull Connor was by no means Birmingham's only shame; the city's newspapers, for example, put the story of the mid-week riot on an inside page. Yet at the same time, Negro Leader King could be criticized for using children as shock troops and for inciting the protests even as a new, relatively moderate city administration was about to take over Birmingham.
President Kennedy also came in for criticism. At his press conference, Kennedy claimed that the Federal Government had done all it legally could do about Birmingham. But that, insisted other leaders, both white and Negro, was untrue. Said Harvard Law School Dean Erwin Griswold, a member of the U.S. Civil Rights Commission: "It seems clear to me that he hasn't even started to use the powers that are available to him." Said N.A.A.C.P. Executive Secretary Roy Wilkins: "White people in Alabama make it impossible for us even to debate whether the President should act. My objectivity went out the window when I saw the picture of those cops sitting on that woman and holding her down by the throat."
Birmingham's Negroes were certainly not worried about legalities; they were not worried about the niceties of "timing," or even about the morality of using children as troops. Instead, theirs was a raging desire to achieve equal human status -- now, and by whatever means. Massachusetts Attorney General Edward Brooke, a Negro, expressed it well: "The pressure is mounting. It has been smoldering for some time -- many, many years. And it is a justifiable impatience." Bob Eckhardt, a white and a member of the Texas Legislature, put it another way: "The Negroes' goals are not in reach of court decisions any longer."
It Could Happen Anywhere. Birmingham therefore set off a chain reaction -- uncontrolled. New lunch-counter sit-ins started in Atlanta, Nashville and Raleigh. The N.A.A.C.P. called for peaceful sympathy demonstrations in 100 cities. Jackie Robinson, now a vice president of Chock Full O' Nuts, said he would go to Birmingham to join in the Negro protest. So did Floyd Patterson. Communism was having a field day. Gloated Radio Moscow: "We have the impression that American authorities both cannot and do not wish to stop outrages by racists."
Perhaps most baleful of all, the Black Muslim movement within the U.S. Negro community took full recruiting advantage of the Birmingham riots. The Black Muslims do not seek integration; they want total separation of the races, with Negroes not only independent but, if possible, superior. Now Malcolm X, top Eastern torchbearer for the militant movement, could only sneer at Martin Luther King's gospel of nonviolence. Said he: "The lesson of Birmingham is that the Negroes have lost their fear of the white man's reprisals and will react with violence, if provoked. This could happen anywhere in the country today."
Last week, at the crest of the crisis, a white Birmingham waitress said to a customer from the North: "Honey, I sure hope the colored don't win. They've winned so much around the South. Why, you go down and get on a bus, and a nigger's just liable to sit right down beside you. Oh, that's hurt Birmingham somethin' awful."
Neither Malcolm X nor the Birmingham waitress represents the majority of their races. But they do represent and symbolize two fixed positions: the Negro who looks with eagerness toward a militant solution, and the unyielding Southerner who hopes not to be further disturbed. There are many other positions, and there is a long gaping valley of confusion and diffusion. It is a great uncharted space where leaders follow and followers lead, for there is no certainty of plan or purpose there. Negro Author James Baldwin has illuminated this grey gulf with bolts of intellectual lightning.
Baldwin cries out in hopelessness and helplessness as he gazes across the gulf. For that gulf cannot be bridged by law alone; the law can furnish a foundationupon which Negroes can build to achieve their rights, but it cannot provide education, or cure poverty, or enforce understanding, or give body to an old-fashioned thing called humanity.
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