2003 is the fortieth anniversary of one of the most tumultuous twelve months in our history: the year 1963, the zenith of the civil rights movement. During the intervening decades, books, articles, documentaries, and interviews have built on one another to sculpt that year, as well as the entire period of the early 1960s, into an untouchable piece of American folklore. Central to the narrative are the events occurring in the city of Birmingham, Alabama, or as the press called it "Bombingham." I was a resident of Birmingham during the most turbulent part of the 1960s and I have always wanted to tell "the other side of the story."
I simply wanted to report what wasn’t reported and illustrate how activists, politicos and media collude to stage-manage the news. Now that four decades have passed, the time might be ripe for a Birmingham Reconsidered piece.
Actually such a book was published a few years ago, Carry Me Home by Diane McWhorter. Ms. McWhorter grew up in Birmingham and was there during the calamitous 1960s. She later became a journalist for the New York Times. Her book might be the most balanced account of the events in Birmingham at that time. It is meticulously researched and documented and has been immensely helpful to me in refreshing my memory of that place and time. However, her conclusions and mine are different in points.
My Birmingham story begins in 1960 with a visit to the city by one of the New York Times most esteemed journalists, Harrison Salisbury. Prior to his visit, Mr. Salisbury had received accolades for his reporting of the riots in Johannesburg, South Africa, where 300 rioters had been killed and thousands of others wounded when the full force of the military had been turned against crowds of demonstrators.
Buoyed by the favorable reception of his Johannesburg series, Salisbury was eager to repeat his success. So, with his typewriter and tape recorder, he ensconced himself in Birmingham’s finest hotel and sought interviews from leaders of both the white and black communities. Many in the white community were apprehensive of granting an interview to a New York Times reporter. From past experience, they knew their comments would be selectively edited and taken out of context. They also knew their words would be spelled phonetically in such a way as to mimic and exaggerate their Southern accents.
Nevertheless Mr. Salisbury was able to accumulate quite a volume of varied perspectives from which he could pick and choose. The people of Birmingham expected his report to be derogatory but they were stunned by the excessive abuse Salisbury heaped on their city. I, for one, found his two articles shocking as well as insightful. Shocking because they were incredibly one-sided; replete with outrageous exaggeration. Insightful because they taught me to be wary of media reports. I have never again been able to read a newspaper report without skepticism.
The two famous articles were captioned; "Fear and Hatred Grip Birmingham." At the beginning Salisbury claims: "Some Negroes have nicknamed Birmingham the Johannesburg of America. The difference between Johannesburg and Birmingham is that here they have not yet opened fire with the tanks and cannons." After portraying white citizens treatment of blacks as cruel and oppressive, Salisbury maintained: "Every channel of communication, every medium of mutual interest, every reasoned approach, every inch of middle ground has been fragmented by the emotional dynamite of racism, enforced by the whip, the razor, the gun, the bomb, the torch, the club, the knife, the mob, the police and many branches of the state’s apparatus." This bombastic, operatic tone continued throughout the series.
Salisbury’s invective was even too extreme for the New York Times editors, who deleted passages such as the following: "To one long accustomed to the sickening atmosphere of Moscow in the Stalin days, the aura of the community which once prided itself as the u2018Magic City’ of the South is only too familiar. To one who knew Hitler’s storm troop Germany it would seem even more familiar." However, even after editing, executives of the New York Times voiced alarm that the report was too exaggerated. One said of the Salisbury series: "As soon as I saw that I knew we were in trouble."
The Times’ trouble was compounded by printing a full-page advertisement critical of State of Alabama officials that contained numerous falsehoods. The Times, with its daily feed from wire services as well as its network of correspondents, obviously knew the ad’s claims were bogus. Phony accusations described acts of brutality against student demonstrators by Montgomery police that never occurred. The ad was created by Bayard Rustin of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) and endorsed by the Committee to Defend Martin Luther King, which included the usual celebrity hangers-on such as Harry Belafonte, Eleanor Roosevelt, Marlon Brando, Maureen Stapleton, Sidney Poitier, and Shelley Winters.
The whirlwind of fiction that Salisbury’s articles and the SCLC’s ad jumpstarted created a public outcry as well as immediate protestations from Alabama officials. As the complaints mounted, the Times printed a retraction and an apology for the ad. The Times also put the Birmingham Chamber of Commerce’s rebuttal to Salisbury columns on its front page. But its repentance was too little and too late. Almost a dozen libel suits were filed against the New York Times claiming monetary damages sufficient enough to shut down the giant newspaper.
An Alabama court awarded $500,000 damages to Montgomery City Commissioner Sullivan as a result of false claims made against him in the SCLC ad. The Alabama Supreme Court upheld the lower court’s ruling.
However, the U.S. Supreme Court reversed the state court’s decision with the baffling ruling that, although accusations in the ad were false, and known to be false by the ad’s creators, they were not made with "actual malice." This ruling was to become fairly typical of many Supreme Court decisions after 1960. Around that time the justices became more concerned with accommodating the shifting winds of the times than adhering strictly to the Constitution. So the New York Times dodged a bullet.
But the newspaper’s Birmingham articles and the SCLC ad had a profound influence on the mainstream media and hence the nation. The negative media attention focused on Birmingham was not lost on Martin Luther King and his lieutenants. Still smarting from their failed attempt to garner national media attention during their demonstrations in Albany, Georgia, King and his cohorts decided that Birmingham might be the place where they could conjure a colossal media coup.
Dr. King’s managing of the Civil Rights movement is capsuled in a February 2003 article in The New Yorker by Nicholas Lemann, who states: "King and his advisors had a genius for generating publicity that engaged the sympathies of liberal whites in the North. It wasn’t just the strategy of nonviolence and the rhetoric of hope and redemption that made King successful; it was the staging of events in order to play to the national audience. King was great at losing the battle while winning the war. — u2018local failure and national victory’." Of Birmingham Lemann writes: "The real fruit of the Birmingham campaign was the 1964 Civil Rights Act."
Lemann is correct. Altering the social structure of Birmingham was not King’s goal. He had bigger fish to fry. Dr. King and his associates, with help from an obliging media, sought to create the impression that hostility towards blacks was rampant throughout entire cities and states. Also, they maintained that a u2018crisis’ had developed; one that state and local governments could not control. Therefore, only massive Federal intervention could restore order. The SCLC wanted sweeping laws that would completely restructure American society, with all violations adjudicated at the Federal level. That is what they wanted and that is what they got. In fact, they got more than they ever dreamed they would get.
Before the Birmingham campaign began, the King forces held numerous strategy sessions, mostly in New York City. Members of the local press, sworn to secrecy, were invited to these planning and fund raising meetings. There they learned the preparations for "Project Confrontation" (Project C). The game plan was to create civic disruptions sufficient to provoke confrontations from local law enforcement as well as inflame the Klan and other fringe groups into acts of violence. Of course, national media coverage was essential to the campaign’s success. This was standard strategy for the civil rights movement as stated earlier by James Farmer of the Congress of Racial Equality: "We felt we could count on the racists of the South to create a u2018crisis’ so that the federal government would be compelled to enforce the law."
To kick off Project C, King publicly proclaimed that; "Birmingham is the most segregated city in the nation." Of course it wasn’t, but the press dutifully repeated this claim as though it were a fact. Birmingham, like most cities throughout the nation, was stratified with distinct neighborhoods of blue-collar workers, middle class, and the very wealthy. The city’s black regions had similar neighborhood classifications with laborers, a middle class and wealthy citizens including at least one millionaire. And, contrary to media reports, Birmingham’s black community did not unanimously support the demonstrations that Dr. King and his Atlanta associates brought to their city. In fact, Birmingham’s blacks were a widely diverse group with conflicting opinions regarding all social and political issues. This is evidenced by the fact that Birmingham’s black schools produced not only radical Communist activist Angela Davis but also conservative political advisor Condoleezza Rice.
A key to understanding Birmingham’s political situation at the time is the fact that a substantial portion of the white community, especially the middle class and the very wealthy, lived outside of the city and, consequently, could not vote in city elections. In fact, blue-collar workers constituted the largest block of city voters. The city’s three-member commission form of government consisted of a Mayor, a Commissioner of Pubic Works and a Commissioner of Public Safety, with each commissioner free to act as he saw fit. The national media never seemed to grasp the fact that the Commissioner of Public Safety, Eugene "Bull" Connor, was not representative of all of Birmingham and certainly not its suburbs.
Although many of Birmingham’s middle and upper class whites may have held prejudiced opinions of blacks; their stance was paternalistic rather than adversarial. And the men who did commit the violent acts were not exclusively from Birmingham. Nor were they all from Alabama. Civil rights demonstrations were like a magnet to these types, drawing them to the most recent trouble spot. These men were primarily laborers and drifters at the lower end of the socioeconomic scale, frustrated by their lack power and fearful that their jobs would be threatened by blacks.
The year 1963 began in Alabama with the inauguration of George Wallace as Governor. Wallace had a law degree from the University of Alabama Law School and had served as an Assistant Attorney General for Alabama as well as a district court judge. Although the media only reported his inflammatory segregation statements, many of his speeches regarding the powers of states and the powers of the Federal government were well-reasoned, indicating a solid legal background. Throughout his first term in office he frequently lambasted civil rights activists from other states who invaded Alabama, especially Dr. King’s SCLC.
Wallace was also highly critical of the national media’s reporting of events in Alabama which he considered grossly unfair. Media reports of Birmingham called the city "Bombingham" as a result of a series of suspicious bombings in black communities which the FBI was unable to solve. The first bombings were most likely perpetrated by Klan types. But as the bombings continued, many began to wonder how white males could return to the same black neighborhoods and set off explosions without being noticed. Also, bombings usually took place when families were not at home and the bombs rarely damaged the main structure of the house. After one bombing, a black male claimed that he had seen a Birmingham police officer planting the bomb. Later he admitted he had lied and in court pled guilty to lying to an FBI agent.
The national media rarely, if ever, mentioned the city’s cluster of activist liberals. Although these progressives were a minority, they constituted a significant portion of the population and they had considerable clout. The Young Men’s Business Club had quite a few of these young liberal professionals as members. The city’s largest employer, the University Medical Center, had recruited medical professionals from all around the nation and, behind the scenes, they were systematically removing racial barriers throughout this enormous, sixty downtown blocks, medical facility. The Unitarian Church, founded in Birmingham in the 1940s, was also actively working to change the city’s racial policies.
And, of course, Birmingham Southern College, a nationally recognized Methodist institution, was doing its part to end segregation of the races. One of the students at the liberal Birmingham Southern College at this time was Howell Raines, who later became the executive editor of the New York Times. But Raines’s excessive liberalism, and arrogance, would eventually put an end to his stellar career.
The negative press coverage Birmingham was receiving prompted business owners and other movers and shakers, often working behind the scenes, to orchestrate the removal of Bull Connor from office and to change the city’s form of government. A mayor-council form of government, with a mayor and nine councilmen, replaced the old three-member commission form. The new Mayor-Elect, Albert Boutwell, was, for that time, a moderate, and none of the council members had the powers of the former commissioners. The new Mayor-Elect promised a non-confrontational environment and discussions for the creation of a biracial committee were begun.
This change in Birmingham’s city government threw a monkey-wrench into King’s Project C which depended on a hostile confrontational response from elected officials. But there was more bad news for the SCLC. A newspaper strike in New York shut down newspapers for several weeks and coverage by the New York Times was a critical part of Project C. Wisely, King’s forces postponed the Birmingham campaign until the newspaper strike ended. While they waited, eagerly watching events in Birmingham, Bull Connor filed a lawsuit contesting the mayoral election, adamantly refusing to leave office.
While the legal battle to remove Connor from office continued, the city’s elites began negotiating with representatives of the black community to determine the extent and pace of changes. Obviously, the first concession was the removal of any remaining Jim Crow ordinances. Separate restrooms, drinking fountains, lunch counters, etc. in public facilities as well as stores would be eliminated. Stores also agreed to eliminate separate dressing rooms and, along with the city government, committed to the hiring and promoting of more blacks. These discussions were obviously thorny and negotiated with the usual give and take, but the fact that they were taking place at all, coupled with the upcoming change in city leaders, signaled that Birmingham’s racial dividing wall was being dismantled.
President Kennedy, who had been working behind the scenes with his brother, Attorney General Robert Kennedy, was extremely pleased. Kennedy had won Alabama’s electoral votes as well as those of other Southern states and was reluctant to send Federal troops to a Southern city to enforce order. With the positive developments in Birmingham, the Kennedy brothers wanted King to back off and let the two races in the city settle their differences. They asked the SCLC to "give the new city government a chance." Reverend Billy Graham telephoned Dr. King and asked him to "put the brakes on."
Next came one of those climatic moments in American history, when a single decision could alter the political course of the nation; for good or ill, depending upon your political persuasion. The SCLC had two choices: 1) accept the encouraging gestures made by Birmingham’s white community and end Project C, or 2) turn up the level of the demonstrations with the hope that Bull Connor, before he was removed from office, would react forcefully enough for the campaign to regain media sympathy and coverage.
This was a difficult decision for the movement’s leaders because they didn’t want to strain relations with the Kennedy administration. Consequently, there were sharp differences as to how to proceed. The city’s black community was even more divided than the movement’s leaders. A substantial portion of the black community had, from the beginning, refused to participate in the demonstrations. And now they, along with black business owners and black clergymen, opposed the continuation of civic disruptions. Many were apprehensive that more demonstrations would result in increased violence from Klan groups. They made their fears known to Dr. King and implored him to end the demonstrations and let local leaders negotiate with the biracial committee.
However their appeals were rejected and the decision was made to step up the level of the demonstrations. As King told a local SCLC leader: "You’ve got to find the means by which to create a u2018crisis,’ to make Bull Connor tip his hand." But Connor, with a lawsuit pending to retain his office, had become less controversial and more political. He obtained a federal court order barring further demonstrations because of the tenuous city environment. Now he could legally stop unauthorized marches and arrest leaders and he did so with as little fanfare as possible. National media was losing interest in Project C and even the New York Times’ coverage was relegated to brief columns in the back pages of the paper.
The desperate leaders of Project C knew they had to regain the attention of the national media. The usual civil disobedience wasn’t working so something new and radical was needed. At this "defining moment" the decision was made to use young school children to defy city hall. The children would skip school, march without a permit and refuse to disperse when ordered to. The leaders of the movement pinned their hopes on a forceful and headline grabbing reaction from Birmingham’s Commissioner of Public Safety. As King stated at the time, a reaction against young children would "subpoena the conscience of the nation."
At first, student marchers allowed themselves to be arrested in an orderly fashion after refusing to disband. The large crowd of curious bystanders was also orderly. But in subsequent marches the children became more obstinate, taunting and openly defying law enforcement. The throng of bystanders watching the events, some from roofs of nearby buildings, also became more agitated. Many cursed policemen and threw stones, bricks and coke bottles at the officers. As the SCLC had hoped, a frustrated Commissioner Connor stepped up his enforcement measures.
First he ordered the fire department to use fire hoses to control the crowd. Spraying with water was only marginally effective, so firemen increased the pressure until it was forceful enough to literally knock a person down. Some news reports made the ridiculous claim that the water pressure was so powerful that demonstrators were lifted off the ground and that their bodies sailed over the tops of parked cars.
Next, Connor called out the K-9 Corps with its six German shepards on leashes. The snarling dogs were more effective than the fire hoses but still the crowd would not disperse. The most famous picture from the demonstrations shows a young black male being attacked by a vicious police dog. The New York Times placed this picture, three columns wide, above the fold on its front page with the headline: "DOGS AND HOSES REPULSE NEGROES IN BIRMINGHAM." The picture was also flashed across the nation and generated immense sympathy for the demonstrators. But, as a result of Diane McWhorter’s thorough research for her book, we can look at "the other side of the story."
The young man in the picture, Walter Gadsden, was a member of one of the families that refused to take part in the demonstrations. He was simply watching the events. Gadsden had no fear of large dogs because he owned one himself and knew how to control them. Officer Dick Middleton was the antithesis of the stereotyped policeman. Middleton, a mild-mannered man whose hobby was cooking, had a reputation of treating all citizens fairly. Officer Middleton had his German shepard, Leo, on a leash at all times.
Middleton is trying to maneuver Gadsden to a police car for refusing an order to leave the street. If you examine the picture closely, you will see that Officer Middleton is restraining Leo with his leash while he clutches Gadsden’s sweater. But Gadsden, grabbing Officer Middleton’s arm for balance, forcefully plunges his knee into Leo’s throat. An SCLC member claimed that Leo’s jaw had been broken. Another report indicated that the dog collapsed because its breath had been knocked out of it. And there were reports of other injuries to Leo that were being treated by a veterinarian. In any event, Leo left the encounter in worse shape than Walter Gadsden.
In contrast to news reports, the six police dogs were never turned loose on the demonstrators and only minor injuries were sustained by a small number of demonstrators who returned on following days to continue demonstrations. Those members of the media who claimed that demonstrators were "nonviolent" must have been blindfolded. Firemen and policemen were pelted with thrown objects. A photographer was struck with a chunk of concrete and three demonstrators tackled a policeman, stabbing him in the ribs.
But the one-sided media reports gave the SCLC the national coverage it had sought. Also, the timing of demonstrations was exceedingly providential, taking place only days before the Alabama Supreme Court forcefully removed Bull Connor from office. The new Mayor and City Council moved into city hall and the SCLC ended Project C.
Yet, as the black community had feared, there continued to be sporadic acts of violence from Klan types, culminating in the monstrous bombing of the Sixteenth Avenue Baptist Church that took the lives of four young girls. In Atlanta, Dr. King got word that many in Birmingham’s black community held him responsible for the deaths. King immediately sent a telegram to Governor Wallace stating: "…the blood of four young children…is on your hands. Your irresponsible and misguided actions have created in Birmingham and Alabama the atmosphere that has induced continued violence and murder."
King then rushed to Birmingham and asked to be allowed to deliver the eulogy for the four young girls. Meeting with reporters, he made the absurd claim that those Birmingham blacks who did not participate in the demonstrations were to blame for the deaths. He said: "Who murdered these four girls? The apathy and the complacency of many Negroes who will sit down on their stools and do nothing and not engage in creative protest to get rid of this evil."
King’s allegation was repugnant to the segment of the black population who opposed Project C. Included in that group were the parents of Carole Robertson, one of the four girls killed in the bombing. Despite pleadings from King and others, they adamantly refused to allow their daughter to be included in the funeral ceremony with the other three girls. Mrs. Robertson sternly advised Dr. King: "Carole lost her life because of the movement." Mrs. Robertson would not allow Martin Luther King to say the eulogy for her daughter, choosing instead a separate service presided over by a local minister.
In the final analysis, Project C succeeded beyond all expectations because Dr. King wisely involved members of the national media in the campaign from its inception. We must remember that this was before cable and Internet, so the public had to rely on reports from the major newspapers and the three television networks: ABC, NBC, and CBS. Their media coverage of Project C was the impetus behind the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Voting Rights Act of 1965, and essentially all the civil rights legislation that followed. As all-encompassing as these laws are, their regulations have been expanded even further as they are dubiously interpreted by government bureaucrats, not elected by or answerable to the voters. Today, civil rights agencies oversee nearly every aspect of American life, and the only proof needed to establish a violation of their regulations is simply a quota or a statistic.