It was April 3, 1963 when the youth activists in Birmingham, Alabama started to gather along the streets to protest against segregation. During the protest, Parker High School student Walter Gadsden was attacked by the police’s K-9 dog.
The Birmingham campaign was a strategic movement organized by the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) to bring attention to the unequal treatment that black Americans endured in Birmingham, Alabama. The campaign ran during the spring of 1963, culminating in widely publicized confrontations between black youth and white civic authorities, that eventually pressured the municipal government to change the city’s discrimination laws. Organizers, led by Martin Luther King, Jr. used nonviolent direct action tactics to defy laws they considered unfair. King summarized the philosophy of the Birmingham campaign when he said: “The purpose of … direct action is to create a situation so crisis-packed that it will inevitably open the door to negotiation”.
In the early 1960s, Birmingham was one of the most racially divided cities in the United States, as black citizens faced legal and economic disparities as well as violent retribution when they attempted to bring attention to their problems. Protests in Birmingham began with a boycott to pressure business leaders to provide employment opportunities to people of all races, and end segregation in public facilities, restaurants, and stores. When business leaders resisted the boycott, SCLC organizer Wyatt Tee Walker and Birmingham native Fred Shuttlesworth began what they termed Project C, a series of sit-ins and marches intended to provoke mass arrests. After the campaign ran low on adult volunteers, high school, college, and elementary students were trained by SCLC coordinator James Bevel to participate, resulting in hundreds of arrests and an instant intensification of national media attention on the campaign. To dissuade demonstrators and control the protests the Birmingham Police Department, led by Eugene “Bull” Connor, used high-pressure water jets and police dogs on children and bystanders. Media coverage of these events brought intense scrutiny on racial segregation in the South.
Not all of the demonstrators were peaceful, despite the avowed intentions of the SCLC. In some cases, bystanders attacked the police, who responded with force. Scenes of the ensuing mayhem caused an international outcry, leading to federal intervention by the Kennedy administration. King and the SCLC were criticized for putting children in harm’s way. By the end of the campaign, King’s reputation surged, Connor lost his job, the “Jim Crow” signs in Birmingham came down, and public places became more open to blacks.
The Birmingham campaign was a model of direct action protest, as it effectively shut down the city. By attracting media attention to the adverse treatment of black Americans, it brought national force to bear on the issue of segregation. Although desegregation occurred slowly in Birmingham, the campaign was a major factor in the national push towards the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibited racial discrimination in hiring practices and public services in the United States.