In the sixth part of our history of the US Civil Rights movement, Ken Olende looks at the movement’s peak year with the campaign in Birmingham, Alabama, and the March on Washington with Martin Luther King’s “I Have A Dream” speech
US Civil Rights Movement part 6: The Birmingham Campaign & The March on Washington
From Unity, anti-racist and anti-fascist magazine July-August 2016 / issue 16
Many Civil Rights activists felt the movement was stuck in a trough as 1963 began. Martin Luther King and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) had been campaigning to desegregate Albany, Georgia, the previous year but the movement had stalled.
The segregationists appeared to be gaining confidence. George Wallace had just been elected governor of the state of Alabama. At his inaugural speech in January 1963, he said, “Segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever”.
Many of the younger activists in the Civil Rights movement felt that King was becoming too close to the government of President John F Kennedy, which claimed to support the movement—but would not take action to make “Jim Crow” segregation illegal. This was partly because Kennedy’s Democratic Party relied on the votes of Southern segregationists like Wallace, who was also a Democrat. Kennedy called for the movement to register people to vote and accept gradual change.
Civil Rights leaders felt they needed to up the stakes, so they planned “Project C”, where C stood for confrontation. They moved to campaign in Birmingham, which King called “probably the most thoroughly segregated city in the United States”.
Though 40% of its population was black it was not possible to work in most jobs if you were not white. There were no black faces serving in shops in the centre of town and no black bus drivers. Black secretaries were not allowed to work for white employers. The national—or federal—government had insisted that parks should be desegregated two years earlier and the local authorities had responded by closing all public parks.
King wrote that the Civil Rights movement decided to centre its campaign on “the business community, for we knew that the negro population had sufficient buying power so that its withdrawal could make the difference between profit and loss for many businesses”.
King always referred to black people as “negroes”, which was considered a respectful term at the time. The movement demanded desegregation of all public facilities and job opportunities for black people—what they called the “package deal”.
Birmingham’s police chief Eugene “Bull” Connor had collaborated with the Ku Klux Klan against the Freedom Rides (see Part 5: The Freedom Rides). In early April he banned marches.
King said, “If they let us march they admitted their lie that the black man was content. If they shot us down they told the world that they were inhuman brutes.”
The mass of black people in the town and their white supporters came out and marched anyway. Connor ordered police dogs and fire hoses to be unleashed on the peaceful protesters. During five weeks of the campaign the jails were filled with protesters, including King himself.
News footage of this was beamed round the world, much to the embarrassment of the US government which saw itself as the leader of the “free world”. As the arrests continued students and other supporters came from outside to join the protests.
Moderates said the Civil Rights movement should not be so confrontational. King replied with his furious “Letter from Birmingham Jail”, complaining that the greatest stumbling block was “the white moderate who is more devoted to order than to justice.
“We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed. Frankly I have never yet engaged in a direct action movement that was ‘well timed’, according to the timetable of those who have not suffered unduly from the disease of segregation.”
Confrontation continued with the Children’s Crusade, when more than 1,000 school students walked out of their classes to join the protests. Police arrested them. As they were released most went straight back to join the march.
King told the children’s parents, “Don’t hold them back if they want to go to jail. For they are doing a job for not only themselves, but for all of America and for all mankind.”
Before long the police had 4,500 people in jail and no room for any more. On 8th May local business leaders agreed to most of the protesters’ demands. They tried to go slow on implementing the changes, but through June Jim Crow signs were removed from the street.
These events inspired Civil Rights activists in towns and cities across the South to demand the same “package deal”.
The SCLC said it would move its focus to Washington to put the same kind of pressure on the national government to outlaw segregation. But after the violence that had been witnessed by the world Kennedy promised to back a Civil Rights bill. The March on Washington in August became a celebration of the success of the movement rather than another confrontation.
But the racists did not give up quietly. Two bombs were let off as the campaign came to an end. Local people rioted in anger at this.
And in August, King led more than 250,000 on a march through the nation’s capital, where he made his “I Have a Dream” speech talking about how far the movement had come, and how far it still had to go.
This was the peak of the movement, but it went on demanding rights for years to come. The need to keep fighting racism was shown the following month when Ku Klux Klan members bombed Birmingham’s Sixteenth Street Baptist Church, killing four young girls.
The next stages would become ever more complicated as King’s difficulties with the government grew, and more activists came to question his strategy of nonviolence.
I Have a Dream
Excerpt from Martin Luther King’s speech to the March on Washington.
‘There are those who are asking the devotees of civil rights, “When will you be satisfied?” We can never be satisfied as long as the negro is the victim of the unspeakable horrors of police brutality.
We can never be satisfied as long as our bodies, heavy with the fatigue of travel, cannot gain lodging in the motels of the highways and the hotels of the cities.
We cannot be satisfied as long as the negro’s basic mobility is from a smaller ghetto to a larger one. We can never be satisfied as long as our children are stripped of their self-hood and robbed of their dignity by signs stating: “For Whites Only.”
We cannot be satisfied as long as a negro in Mississippi cannot vote and a negro in New York believes he has nothing for which to vote. No, no, we are not satisfied, and we will not be satisfied until “justice rolls down like waters, and righteousness like a mighty stream.”
I am not unmindful that some of you have come here out of great trials and tribulations. Some of you have come fresh from narrow jail cells. And some of you have come from areas where your quest for freedom left you battered by the storms of persecution and staggered by the winds of police brutality…
Go back to Mississippi, go back to Alabama, go back to South Carolina, go back to Georgia, go back to Louisiana, go back to the slums and ghettos of our northern cities, knowing that somehow this situation can and will be changed.
Let us not wallow in the valley of despair, I say to you today, my friends. And so even though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream.
I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.”
I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia, the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood.’