Civil Rights Protesters Attract International Attention Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Protests by civil rights demonstrators in Birmingham, Alabama, were met with police dogs and fire hoses, focusing world attention on the Civil Rights movement in the United States and winning support.

Summary of Event

In the early 1960’s, Birmingham, Alabama, was one of the most industrialized cities in the South and boasted a population of 340,000, 40 percent of which was African American. Reputed to be the most segregated city in the United States, Birmingham had a rocky history where race relations were concerned. In 1961, the freedom riders had been violently attacked in the city—with the apparent connivance of city authorities—and more than fifty unsolved bombings had earned the city the nickname of “Bombingham” among southern blacks. Birmingham’s reputation and the extent of its segregation made it at once an obvious target and formidable obstacle for the Civil Rights movement. Civil Rights movement;demonstrations and protests Segregation;public accommodations African Americans;segregation Civil disobedience Racial and ethnic discrimination;African Americans Birmingham, Alabama [kw]Civil Rights Protesters Attract International Attention (Apr. 3-May 8, 1963) [kw]Rights Protesters Attract International Attention, Civil (Apr. 3-May 8, 1963) [kw]Protesters Attract International Attention, Civil Rights (Apr. 3-May 8, 1963) [kw]International Attention, Civil Rights Protesters Attract (Apr. 3-May 8, 1963) Civil Rights movement;demonstrations and protests Segregation;public accommodations African Americans;segregation Civil disobedience Racial and ethnic discrimination;African Americans Birmingham, Alabama [g]North America;Apr. 3-May 8, 1963: Civil Rights Protesters Attract International Attention[07580] [g]United States;Apr. 3-May 8, 1963: Civil Rights Protesters Attract International Attention[07580] [c]Civil rights and liberties;Apr. 3-May 8, 1963: Civil Rights Protesters Attract International Attention[07580] [c]Social issues and reform;Apr. 3-May 8, 1963: Civil Rights Protesters Attract International Attention[07580] [c]Wars, uprisings, and civil unrest;Apr. 3-May 8, 1963: Civil Rights Protesters Attract International Attention[07580] Shuttlesworth, Fred L. King, Martin Luther, Jr. [p]King, Martin Luther, Jr.;protests and demonstrations Connor, Bull Smyer, Sidney Kennedy, John F. [p]Kennedy, John F.;civil rights

The origins of the protest movement that shook Birmingham in the spring of 1963 were both local and national. Already in place was a Civil Rights movement that had proved its resilience by surviving and periodically protesting during the years since the 1955 Montgomery bus boycott. Its leader was an outspoken Baptist minister, the Reverend Fred L. Shuttlesworth. After the Alabama legislature effectively outlawed the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People National Association for the Advancement of Colored People;banned in Alabama (NAACP) in the state in 1956, Shuttlesworth had organized the Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights (ACMHR), and it had grown to be the largest civil rights organization in the state. Although some African American leaders disliked Shuttlesworth’s combative style, he had proven to be a dynamic leader as well as a survivor: Bombs had twice failed to silence him.

Shuttlesworth, however, realized that the forces of segregation were too strong to be overcome with strictly local resources. The ACMHR was an affiliate of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), a church-based civil rights organization led by Martin Luther King, Jr. In late 1962, Shuttlesworth invited King to come to Birmingham and lead a comprehensive campaign, one that would confront not only segregation but also the economic discrimination faced by Birmingham’s African American citizens.

Although well aware of Birmingham’s intimidating reputation, King saw two advantages in challenging such a bastion of segregation. The SCLC had recently waged an unsuccessful campaign against segregation in Albany, Georgia, and a victory was badly needed to restore the morale and resources of the Civil Rights movement. King also saw that segregation was unlikely to be defeated throughout the South without a greater degree of federal involvement. A well-orchestrated and well-publicized campaign in Birmingham could be the means to force intervention from the John F. Kennedy administration, whose support for civil rights had thus far been lukewarm. Shuttlesworth and King met in February, 1963, at the Dorchester Center in Georgia to work out the details for what was labeled Project C Project C (for “confrontation”).

The campaign’s start was originally scheduled to coincide with the Easter shopping season, in order to maximize the impact of its planned economic boycott. Municipal politics in Birmingham, however, delayed the campaign’s beginning. Two years earlier, a group of Birmingham businesspeople had agreed to African American demands to obey a court order to desegregate the city’s parks and swimming pools. Birmingham’s commissioner of public safety, Bull Connor, however, had thwarted the agreement by closing down the park system.

At that time, Birmingham had a commission form of government with three elected commissioners, each of whom had specific responsibilities. As public safety commissioner, the staunchly segregationist Connor controlled the fire and police departments. He was, as well, the dominant personality on the commission. To many businesspeople, who were increasingly aware of the economic consequences of Birmingham’s image problems, Connor’s actions seemed likely to tarnish further the city’s reputation.

Sidney Smyer, a prominent realtor and president of the city’s chamber of commerce, and other moderates in the business community decided that the best way to get rid of Connor was to alter the city’s form of government. In 1962, they launched a campaign to replace the commission form with a mayor and council plan. The campaign was successful, and in March, 1963, mayoral elections were held. Their inconclusive results necessitated a run-off, on April 2, between Connor and the more moderate Albert Boutwell Boutwell, Albert . On April 2, Boutwell won the run-off.

King and Shuttlesworth had postponed the beginning of Project C until after the run-off, lest an upsurge in civil rights activity create a backlash in Connor’s favor. On April 3, the SCLC and ACMHR began a large-scale, nonviolent campaign of protest marked by sit-in demonstrations, marches, and a well-organized economic boycott against downtown retail establishments. Meanwhile, Connor attempted to overturn the election results by filing a suit arguing that the whole changeover in the city’s government was illegal. He refused to relinquish control of the public safety department until the issue was resolved by the Alabama Supreme Court. Although the court eventually ruled against Connor (on May 22, 1963), the short-term result was a confusing situation in which the city’s new government was unsure of its powers and Connor was left in control of the machinery of law enforcement.

The Birmingham protests were among the largest ever launched by the Civil Rights movement. For sixty-five consecutive nights, rallies were held in various black churches, while during the day direct-action protests continued. On April 11, Connor obtained an injunction in state court against further demonstrations. Some Project C leaders urged that the protests be abandoned until the injunction was overturned in a higher court. King believed that the momentum had to be maintained, however, and he openly defied the injunction. On April 12, Good Friday, King and a number of other demonstrators were arrested. It was while in jail that King wrote his famous “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” "Letter from a Birmingham Jail" (King)[Letter from a Birmingham Jail] as a response to a published letter from some local white clergy who questioned his timing and tactics. Originally penciled in the margin of a newspaper, the letter became a classic indictment of the moral injustice of segregation and a justification for the urgency of the Civil Rights movement.

Although King was released after eight days, more and more demonstrators went to jail. Running short of adult protesters, in early May, King pressed children from the public schools into service. Up until this time, Connor had been fairly restrained in his handling of the protests. Infuriated by the continuation of the protests, Civil unrest;United States he now attempted to shut down the demonstrations by using greater force, including police dogs and fire hoses. At the peak of the demonstration on May 6-7, approximately two thousand protesters had been arrested and the state fairgrounds had been pressed into service as a temporary jail.

By this time, Birmingham was the nation’s leading news story, and pictures of young protesters being attacked by dogs and drenched by hoses were flashing around the country and overseas. On May 7, some young blacks had vented their anger and frustration by battling with police and other whites in the downtown area. Many, including some in the Kennedy administration, began to fear a major race riot was imminent. Many of Birmingham’s white elite were appalled at Connor’s tactics.

Abandoning the position that they would not negotiate while the demonstrations were in progress, white and black leaders began serious talks. The key figure in the white community was Smyer, who earlier had secretly established contact with Shuttlesworth. Added pressure came from Washington, D.C., where the Kennedy administration was worried about the effects that events in Birmingham might have abroad, especially in Africa and Asia. Assistant Attorney General Burke Marshall Marshall, Burke had been dispatched to the city and was pressuring both sides to come to terms. During the final stages of negotiations both the president and his brother the attorney general were busy on the telephone.

On May 8, the demonstrations were suspended, and two days later a formal agreement was signed. Downtown merchants agreed to desegregate lunch counters, drinking fountains, and other facilities, and to hire at least some African Americans in clerical jobs. In addition, a permanent biracial committee was to be established, and those demonstrators in jail were to be released. The agreement occasioned a heated argument between King and Shuttlesworth (who thought the terms too open to evasion), but its terms defined the final accord. Segregationist extremists made a last-ditch attempt to disrupt the agreement by bombing the Gaston Motel, which had served as Project C’s command center, and the home of the Reverend A. D. King, Dr. King’s brother. Despite a night of rioting, the agreement held.


The “Battle of Birmingham” was one of the most dramatic confrontations of the Civil Rights movement. The newspaper and television pictures of nonviolent protesters—some of them no more than six years old—being bitten by police dogs or swept off their feet by high-pressure fire hoses provided the movement with some of its most powerful images. In the battle for public opinion, the opponents of segregation won a decisive victory. President Kennedy’s remark that Connor had done as much for the Civil Rights movement as had Abraham Lincoln contained an ironic truth.

The victory was more than a moral one. Events in Birmingham made it easier for the SCLC and other Civil Rights movement organizations to raise funds. The protests in Birmingham inspired African Americans across the South; about two hundred communities experienced direct action campaigns in 1963. The enthusiasm generated made it easier to organize the March on Washington that summer.

Events in Birmingham also succeeded in achieving King’s goal of promoting a greater federal role in dismantling segregation in the South. Shifting public opinion in the North made it less risky for politicians there to support greater federal intervention. There were, to be sure, other dramatic events that helped in this direction: Governor George C. Wallace’s confrontation with federal authorities over the integration of the University of Alabama and the assassination of Medgar Evers in Mississippi, both in June, 1963. When President Kennedy addressed the country on June 12, 1963, he clearly aligned his administration for the first time on the side of the Civil Rights movement and called for a new and more comprehensive civil rights bill. He had first ordered the drafting of such a measure in early May, at the height of the Birmingham protests. The landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964 would not pass for another year, but much of its groundwork was laid by the events of 1963.

The events of April-May, 1963, also had a lasting impact on Birmingham itself. The agreement that ended the demonstrations was implemented more slowly and less fully than many had hoped.

Nevertheless, it marked a break with Birmingham’s uncompromising past. Racial hatred remained a feature of the city’s life, however, and on September 15, 1963, a bomb exploded at the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church, killing four African American girls. The church had been a starting point for the marches of early May. It was this tragic epilogue, perhaps, more than the spring campaign itself, that brought home to many of the city’s whites the need to improve race relations. Eight years later, progress in this area won for Birmingham Look magazine’s “All-American City” designation. Civil Rights movement;demonstrations and protests Segregation;public accommodations African Americans;segregation Civil disobedience Racial and ethnic discrimination;African Americans Birmingham, Alabama

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Abernathy, Ralph David. And the Walls Came Tumbling Down. New York: Harper & Row, 1989. The memoirs of King’s second-in-command and successor at the SCLC. A prominent participant in the Birmingham protests, Abernathy provides a firsthand account of Project C from the vantage point of its leadership. Index but no bibliography.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Branch, Taylor. Parting the Waters: America in the King Years, 1954-1963. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1988. A large-scale history of the Civil Rights movement, through the Kennedy assassination, stressing the underlying role of the African American church. Contains three detailed but highly readable chapters on Birmingham. Bibliography and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Brauer, Carl M. John F. Kennedy and the Second Reconstruction. New York: Columbia University Press, 1977. A comprehensive treatment of the Kennedy administration and civil rights. Considers Birmingham the point at which Kennedy moved to more active support of the Civil Rights movement. Takes a more positive view of the administration’s contributions to the movement than some other historians. Index and bibliography.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Corley, Robert. “In Search of Racial Harmony: Birmingham Business Leaders and Desegregation, 1950-1963.” In Southern Businessmen and Desegregation, edited by Elizabeth Jacoway and David P. Colbourn. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1982. Details the meager efforts at interracial dialogue in Birmingham before the demonstrations. Essays on other southern cities in the volume provide comparative context.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Fairclough, Adam. To Redeem the Soul of America: The Southern Christian Leadership Conference and Martin Luther King, Jr. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1987. The Civil Rights movement as seen from the SCLC. Considers events in Birmingham as constituting an important breakthrough for the organization and as laying the foundations for subsequent legislation. Detailed endnotes but no bibliography. Index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Garrow, David. Bearing the Cross: Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, 1955-1968. New York: William Morrow, 1986. A full study of King’s career from 1955 to 1968, by an author who has written two other books on King. Sees Birmingham as the event that cemented King’s stature as the nation’s preeminent civil rights leader. Bibliography and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">_______, ed. Birmingham, Alabama, 1956-1963: The Black Struggle for Civil Rights. Brooklyn, N.Y.: Carlson, 1989. Contains three useful and previously unpublished studies on Birmingham in this period: on the ACMHR, on Fred Shuttlesworth, and on the 1963 confrontation. The studies are placed in context by a good introduction. Bibliographies and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">King, Martin Luther, Jr. Why We Can’t Wait. 1964. New York: Signet Classic, 2000. King’s own account of events in Birmingham, written in the fall of 1963. Written to persuade and inspire, it contains the famous “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.” Includes a new foreword by the Reverend Jesse Jackson.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">McWhorter, Diane. Carry Me Home: Birmingham, Alabama—The Climactic Battle of the Civil Rights Revolution. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2001. A 701-page history of the protests in Birmingham in 1963. Highly recommended. Includes maps, photographs, a bibliography, and an index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Morris, Aldon. Origins of the Civil Rights Movement: Black Communities Organizing for Social Change. New York: Free Press, 1984. Covers the history of the movement through 1963, emphasizing its organizational features. Contains a good chapter on Birmingham. Morris argues that the confrontation in Birmingham was primarily local and economic in origin. Bibliography and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Raines, Howell. My Soul Is Rested: Movement Days in the Deep South Remembered. New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1977. An oral history of the Civil Rights movement. The section on Birmingham includes interviews with Fred Shuttlesworth, Sidney Smyer, participants in the demonstrations, and Birmingham police officers. No bibliography, but does include an index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Romano, Renee C., and Leigh Raiford, eds. The Civil Rights Movement in American Memory. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2006. An excellent collection that looks at how the Civil Rights movement is remembered in the American imagination. Includes a chapter on the church bombing.

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Categories: History