Friday, May 10, 2013

Eyewitness: The Police Terror at Birmingham

Len Holt (b. 1928)
From Reporting Civil Rights: American Journalism 1941–1963

“Children’s March, 1963.” Sculpture installation by James Drake. Kelly Ingram Park, Birmingham, Alabama. Photograph by Carol M. Highsmith. Image courtesy of The George F. Landegger Collection of Alabama Photographs, Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division.
A half century ago, in January 1963, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) began planning a series of demonstrations against segregation in Birmingham. The first of many sit-ins occurred on April 3, and Martin Luther King Jr., Fred Shuttlesworth, and other leaders were arrested on April 12. During his incarceration, King wrote his now-famous “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” justifying non-violent civil disobedience. (He was released on April 20.)

Working with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), local students began to organize and participate in mass marches on May 2, an action dubbed the “Children’s Crusade.” In response, the city’s public safety commissioner, Eugene “Bull” Connor, ordered dogs and fire hoses to be used on the demonstrators. Over a six-day period, there were 2,400 arrests, filling the jails. Connor and the police then used the stockades at the fairgrounds as holding facilities.

Into the midst of this melee arrived African American attorney Len Holt, a National Lawyers Guild member who represented thousands of civil rights protesters during the 1960s. A week after his arrival he wrote and published "Eyewitness," a report of the police action against the students.

The television coverage and newspaper photographs of attack dogs and high-pressure hoses used against hundreds of unarmed children dominated the news and appalled many Americans. There was also, predictably, skepticism and denial. Historian Diane McWhorter recounts one pervasive rumor, that protesters “had put T-bone steaks up their sleeves to get the dogs to bite.” The editor of the Birmingham News refused to publish photographs taken by his own staff: “Thousands and thousands of photographs—the negatives were put into a file cabinet [and recently] uncovered by an intern,” reports one of the surviving journalists. Instead, local media coverage downplayed the atrocities, noting (for example) that a dog had been injured when a car door had been slammed on its tail.

But the tide had turned. On May 10 the protest leaders announced an agreement with local authorities to desegregate public facilities within ninety days and to release the arrested protesters on bond or their own recognizance. Prompted by phone calls from Attorney General Robert Kennedy, several unions raised a quarter of a million dollars for bail money. And the next day the Alabama Supreme Court ruled against Bull Connor, who had lost the election a month earlier but had refused to step down, and ordered him out of office. (“We ended up transforming Bull into a steer,” King quipped in his “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” speech five years later.)

The peace was short-lived. During the late-night hours of Saturday, May 11, members of the Klan set off two bombs, one at the Gaston Motel—which King had left only hours before—and the second at the home of King's brother. The turmoil that occurred in the hours following the bombings became known as “The Mother’s Day Riot.” King returned to the city immediately to help restore the peace and, over the objections of Governor George Wallace, three thousand federal troops were deployed to maintain order.

Note: Towards the end of his article, Holt makes a passing reference to a gruesome attack “a few years previously.” On September 2, 1957, six Klansmen abducted and castrated a black man, chosen at random, as a warning against attempts to integrate the schools.

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Coming from the airport May 6, we drove past the post office and onto Ruth Ave. toward the A. G. Gaston Motel, integration headquarters. Then we saw why the downtown area was “cop-less.”. . . If you don't see the full selection below, click here (PDF) or click here (Google Docs) to read it—free!

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