The American Civil Rights Movement
The American Civil Rights Movement

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5 The year 1963

As the struggle against racial inequality continued, in 1963 Martin Luther King Jr. organised a series of protests and sit-ins in Birmingham, Alabama, a city which had been plagued by racist violence against the Black population. Many activists were imprisoned as part of King’s ‘Jail, no bail’ strategy to fill the city prisons with activists, thus creating problems for city policing. Following his arrest for protesting in the city, King wrote a letter on 16 April responding to White clergymen who had denounced his actions. The letter, now often known as the ‘Letter from Birmingham Jail’, provides us with an important insight into King’s motivations and his role within the civil rights movement.

Activity 3

Timing: Allow approximately 15 minutes.

Read this extract from the ‘Letter from Birmingham Jail’ and answer the questions below:

I think I should indicate why I am here in Birmingham … Birmingham is the most thoroughly segregated city in the United States … There have been more unsolved bombings of Negro homes and churches in Birmingham than in any other city in the nation. These are the hard, brutal facts. On the basis of these conditions, Negro leaders sought to negotiate with the city fathers. But the latter consistently refused to engage in good-faith negotiation …

As in so many past experiences, our hope had been blasted, and the shadow of deep disappointment settled upon us. We had no option except to prepare for direct action, whereby we would present our very bodies as a means of laying our case before the conscience of the local and national community.

You may well ask: “Why direct action? Long sit-ins, marches and so forth? Isn’t negotiation a better path?” You are quite right in calling for negotiation. Indeed, this is the very purpose of direct action. Non-violent direct action seeks to create such a crisis and foster such a tension that a community which has constantly refused to negotiate is forced to confront the issue’.

  • Why did King choose to target Birmingham, Alabama?
  • What was the ultimate goal of the campaign of non-violent direct action in Birmingham?
  • Do you think that King’s aims and actions could be described as ‘revolutionary’?

Discussion

King and other SCLC leaders targeted Birmingham because racial discrimination and segregation were particularly severe within the city. As King notes, the Black community had also been subjected to significant levels of racial violence, including the bombing of churches and homes.

King explains that his ultimate goal is to seek negotiation that will end racial segregation in Birmingham. The campaigns of direct action are intended to be sufficiently disruptive to force local government into negotiation – something that it had previously been unwilling to consider.

It is debatable whether King’s goals and methods can be considered revolutionary. King was not seeking to seize power for the Black community, and he was not advocating an overthrow of the existing regime in this letter. He was merely seeking negotiation and employing non-violent methods to achieve this. In this sense, his goals were relatively moderate; as you will see, many other Black activists began to propose more radical methods as the 1960s progressed. But we should not downplay the potential significance of these actions for the lives of Black people. King and other civil rights leaders were seeking to bring about a fundamental change in race relations in the South, with the hope of overturning deep-seated racial prejudices – this was certainly a radical ambition. White people held all significant positions of power in the South and did not want to see their authority challenged. King and other civil rights activists threatened this system of power. As you’ll see, continued activism did soon result in concrete changes that helped to dismantle many Jim Crow laws and customs.

Following his release from jail, King helped to organise another protest in Birmingham on 2 May, this one involving children and high school students. King hoped to provoke a reaction that would play into the hands of the civil rights movement. He succeeded. The Birmingham police led by Eugene ‘Bull’ Connor – known by reputation to be virulently racist – responded aggressively, blasting protestors with water cannons and unleashing dogs upon them. Images of small children being treated so brutally were beamed across the nation, driving home the realities of racial discrimination and encouraging further sympathy for the civil rights cause. This forced the Attorney General Robert Kennedy to step in. He threatened the intervention of federal troops to protect the protestors at the next march, scheduled for 7 May. As King had hoped, this led to negotiation and a deal to desegregate the city.

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