When I first began to notice how much of the activities in the civil rights movement focus on Alabama, I thought I’d devote a day to it. And then when I started reading up on it, I thought I’d give it three days. But I’ll stick to one, so be ready. This is LONG. Read it in spurts. Come back to it, read some more. And be prepared to be overwhelmed by a sense of pride in what was accomplished in Alabama.
Four major Civil Rights battles were fought in Alabama.
In 1955-56, the black citizens of Montgomery fought to integrate the buses. Retaliation included the bombing of King’s home in January 1956.
In 1961, the Freedom Riders were bombed and beaten in Anniston, Birmingham, Montgomery, and finally arrested in Jackson.
In the spring of 1963, the effort to desegregate Birmingham was launched. Retaliation included the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church (in which 4 children were killed).
In 1965, three protest marches were carried out from Selma to the state capital of Montgomery to protest for voting rights.
I think I’ve covered the Freedom Riders. So let me talk a bit about the Montgomery Bus Boycott.
In early 1955, 15 year old Claudette Colvin, a member of the NAACP Youth Council, refused to give up her seat on a bus. The way it worked was, 10 back rows for black, 10 front rows for white, 16 middle rows for extra and the two didn’t mix. Once the white rows were full, the whites filled each middle row going back, and the blacks stood. Claudette was in one of the early middle rows. When she refused to get up, she was arrested… but the NAACP decided not to showcase her because she was unmarried and pregnant. Instead, they trained Rosa Parks in civil disobedience and let her be the champion. Parks, the secretary of the chapter, let herself get arrested in November. ED Dixon, president of the NAACP chapter, bailed her out, but the Women’s Political Council decided to organize a one-day boycott. The flyer they distributed said:
Another woman has been arrested and thrown in jail because she refused to get up out of her seat on the bus for a white person to sit down. It is the second time since the Claudette Colvin case that a Negro woman has been arrested for the same thing. This has to be stopped. Negroes have rights too, for if Negroes did not ride the buses, they could not operate. Three-fourths of the riders are Negro, yet we are arrested, or have to stand over empty seats. If we do not do something to stop these arrests, they will continue. The next time it may be you, or your daughter, or mother. This woman’s case will come up on Monday. We are, therefore, asking every Negro to stay off the buses Monday in protest of the arrest and trial. Don’t ride the buses to work, to town, to school, or anywhere on Monday. You can afford to stay out of school for one day if you have no other way to go except by bus. You can also afford to stay out of town for one day. If you work, take a cab, or walk. But please, children and grown-ups, don’t ride the bus at all on Monday. Please stay off all buses Monday
Thirty-thousand African Americans boycotted the buses on December 5th. That afternoon Martin Luther King, Jr. was called in by Ralph Abernathy to form the Montgomery Improvement Association, and the black citizens of Montgomery decided to continue the boycott. Organizers met with the mayor explaining that the boycott would continue until the bus company hired black drivers for routes through black neighborhoods and instructed white drivers to treat black passengers with courtesy and professionalism. At that point, they weren’t trying to integrate the buses, just make the seating arrangements fair with a fixed dividing line for the segregated sections of the buses. Such a line would have meant that if the white section of the bus was oversubscribed, whites would have to stand; blacks would not be forced to give up their seats to whites. The mayor rejected the terms. So the boycott got serious, and a lawyer named Fred Gray took up Claudette Colvin’s case and sued for integration of the buses.
Several hundred drivers coordinated a carpool system to get black workers to and from their jobs. Some white housewives also drove their black domestic servants to work. When the city pressured local insurance companies to stop insuring cars used in the carpools, the boycott leaders arranged policies with Lloyd’s of London, a company which once insured slave cargo ships.And in retaliation, King’s home was bombed, Dixon’s home was bombed, and Ralph Abernathy’s home was bombed. The boycott continued. For 381 days. The support was nationwide. Shoes wore out and churches took up collections for new shoes. Black taxis charged 10 cents, same as bus fare. When they were arrested for charging less than 45 cents, money was raised to bail them out. People walked, rode bicycles, rode mules, and hitchhiked. Eighty-nine boycott leaders, including King, were arrested. It just increased the national attention.
In November 1956, the Supreme Court upheld Claudette Colvin’s case – Browder v. Gayle, to desegregate city buses, and the buses integrated in December, ending the boycott. Score one for King, score one for Civil Rights, score one for African-Americans in Alabama.
The effort to desegregate Birmingham actually started in 1956. Reverend Fred Shuttlesworth worked diligently to integrate his city, starting the Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights (ACMHR) when the NAACP was banned from Alabama, and giving respite to the Freedom Riders in 1961.Birmingham, Alabama was, in 1963, “probably the most thoroughly segregated city in the United States,” according to King. Although the city’s population was 60% white and 40% black, Birmingham had no black police officers, firefighters, sales clerks in department stores, bus drivers, bank tellers, or store cashiers. Black secretaries could not work for white professionals. Jobs available to blacks were limited to manual labor in Birmingham’s steel mills, work in household service and yard maintenance, or work in black neighborhoods. Racial segregation of public and commercial facilities throughout Jefferson County was legally required, covered all aspects of life, and was rigidly enforced. Only 10 percent of the city’s black population was registered to vote in 1960. Fifty unsolved racially motivated bombings between 1945 and 1962 had earned the city the nickname “Bombingham”.
In 1962, Shuttlesworth secured a promise from white civic leaders to desegregate downtown water fountains and restrooms. . When the white leaders reneged on the agreement a few months later, Shuttlesworth appealed to King for help. King and the SCLC organized an elaborate plan to desegregate Birmingham with sit-ins, marches and boycotts of downtown stores: “The purpose of … direct action is to create a situation so crisis-packed that it will inevitably open the door to negotiation”.
Oddly enough, it may not have worked if it weren’t for the intense hatred and violence with which the white citizens responded to the King’s tactics, and in particular, the hostility of Birmingham Public Safety Commissioner, Bull Connor, who even said that we “ain’t gonna segregate no niggers and whites together in this town”. Protest actions in Birmingham began in 1962, when students from local colleges arranged for a year of staggered boycotts. They caused downtown business to decline by as much as 40 percent; the City punished the black community by withdrawing $45,000 ($360,000 in 2017) from a surplus-food program. Economic pressure on white business continued. In the spring of 1963, before Easter, the SCLC and Shuttlesworth initiated Project C, with a series of sit-ns, boycotts and marches designed to put Birmingham’s and Connor’s ugliness in the national spotlight. For example, a Birmingham boycott intensified during the second-busiest shopping season of the year. Pastors urged their congregations to avoid shopping in Birmingham stores in the downtown district. For six weeks supporters of the boycott patrolled the downtown area to make sure blacks were not patronizing stores that promoted or tolerated segregation. King was arrested on Good Friday, and wrote “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” in which he chastised white clergy for not getting involved in the freedom struggle. But the response from the white citizens was not controversial enough to draw national attention, nor were there enough arrests to crowd the jails. When the stores tried to integrate in response to the boycotts, Connor threatened to take their business licenses.
When enthusiasm for the efforts began to wane, a new plan was formed – D-Day, also known as the Children’s Crusade. D-Day called for students from colleges, high schools and even elementary schools to take part in demonstrations throughout the city. Actually, a lot of people were horrified at the risk involved, and even King was hesitant. But the plan went ahead anyway, and the students were trained in non-violence tactics, teaching them to overcome their fears of dogs and jails, and showing them the success of sit-ins in Nashville. On May 2nd over 1000 students skipped school for the demonstrations. Demonstrators were given instructions to march to the downtown area, to meet with the Mayor, and integrate the chosen buildings. They were to leave in smaller groups and continue on their courses until arrested. More than 600 students were arrested; the youngest of these was reported to be eight years old, and the jail held 1200 protesters, with a 900-man capacity. The demonstrations continued the next day with another 1000+ students, and Connor brought out the hoses, set at a level that would peel bark off a tree or separate bricks from mortar, to be turned on the children. Boys’ shirts were ripped off, and young women were pushed over the tops of cars by the force of the water. When the students crouched or fell, the blasts of water rolled them down the asphalt streets and concrete sidewalks. The protest ended at 3pm. And the damage was done. Northern reporters photographed it, and it made Life magazine. Television cameras broadcast to the nation the scenes of fire hoses knocking down schoolchildren and police dogs attacking unprotected demonstrators. A New York Times editorial called the behavior of the Birmingham police “a national disgrace.” The Washington Post editorialized, “The spectacle in Birmingham … must excite the sympathy of the rest of the country for the decent, just, and reasonable citizens of the community, who have so recently demonstrated at the polls their lack of support for the very policies that have produced the Birmingham riots. The authorities who tried, by these brutal means, to stop the freedom marchers do not speak or act in the name of the enlightened people of the city.” But it didn’t end there. The jail count swelled to 2500, and news went worldwide. News of the mass arrests of children had reached Western Europe; the Soviet Union devoted up to 25 percent of its news broadcast to the demonstrations, sending much of it to Africa, where Soviet and U.S. interests clashed. Soviet news commentary accused the Kennedy administration of neglect and “inactivity”.
Meanwhile, the protests continued. Protesters shut down businesses in the town, set off false fire alarms, picketed and sat in stores singing freedom songs. All totaled, there were 3000 protestors in downtown Birmingham.
On May 8 at 4 a.m., white business leaders agreed to most of the protesters’ demands. Political leaders held fast, however. The rift between the businessmen and the politicians became clear when business leaders admitted they could not guarantee the protesters’ release from jail. On May 10, Fred Shuttlesworth and Martin Luther King Jr. told reporters that they had an agreement from the City of Birmingham to desegregate lunch counters, restrooms, drinking fountains and fitting rooms within 90 days, and to hire blacks in stores as salesmen and clerks. Those in jail would be released on bond or their own recognizance.
And then there’s Selma.
In the 1960’s, a group called the Dallas County Voters League (DCVL) launched a voter registration drive in Selma, Alabama, joined by organizers from SNCC. Alabama had both a poll tax and a literacy test to keep blacks, and some poor whites from registering to vote. Selma was 57% black with 15,000 eligible voters, but only 130 were registered. The literacy test was administered subjectively, and even most educated blacks couldn’t pass it. Other tactics included restricted registration hours; economic pressure, including threatening people’s jobs, firing them, evicting people from leased homes, and economic boycotts of black-owned businesses; and violence against blacks who tried to register.
The DCLV and SNCC even held a special Freedom Day on October 7th, 1963, on one of the two days of the month that residents could register to vote. SNCC members who tried to bring water to the blacks waiting on line were arrested, as were those who held signs saying “Register to Vote.” After waiting all day in the hot sun, only a handful of the hundreds in the line were allowed to fill out the voter application, and most of those applications were denied by white county officials. United States Justice Department lawyers and FBI agents were present and observing the scene, but took no action against local officials. On July 6, 1964, one of the two registration days that month, John Lewis led 50 black citizens to the courthouse, but the county sheriff arrested them all rather than allowing them to apply to vote. Three days later an injunction was passed forbidding any gathering of three or more people under the sponsorship of civil rights organizations or leaders. This injunction made it illegal for more than two people at a time to talk about civil rights or voter registration in Selma, suppressing public civil rights activity there for the next six months.
When resistance from white officials proved overwhelming, King and the SCLC were called in to help in 1965. Local protests resulted in 3000 arrests by the beginning of February as organized efforts were made toward voter registration. Up to this point, the overwhelming majority of registrants and marchers were sharecroppers, blue-collar workers and students. On January 22, the DCVL president, finally convinced his colleagues to join the campaign and register en masse. When they refused Sheriff Clark’s orders to disperse at the courthouse, an ugly scene commenced. Clark’s posse beat the teachers away from the door, but they rushed back only to be beaten again. The teachers retreated after three attempts. On February 1st, King was arrested, this time for refusing to cooperate with traffic directions, and Malcolm X responded, stating: if your present racist agitation against our people there in Alabama causes physical harm…you and your KKK friends will be met with maximum physical retaliation from those of us who … believe in asserting our right to self-defense – by any means necessary.” And yet, only 100 African-Americans were successfully registered.
The idea of the march was in response to the shooting death of activist/deacon Jimmie Lee Jackson who was killed by a state trooper at the end of February, during a protest march in Marion. The SCLC decided that the march would run 54 miles from Selma to Montgomery, specifically to ask Governor George Wallace if he had ordered the conditions that led to Jackson’s death, and if he would protect black registrants. Governor Wallace denounced the march as a threat to public safety; he said that he would take all measures necessary to prevent it from happening. “There will be no march between Selma and Montgomery,” Wallace said on March 6, 1965, citing concern over traffic violations. He ordered Alabama Highway Patrol Chief Col. Al Lingo to “use whatever measures are necessary to prevent a march”. On March 7, 1965, an estimated 525 to 600 civil rights marchers headed southeast out of Selma on US Highway 80. The protest went according to plan until the marchers crossed the Edmund Pettis Bridge and entered Dallas County, where they encountered a wall of state troopers and county posse waiting for them on the other side. The demonstrators were told to disband at once and go home. Rev. Hosea Williams tried to speak to the officer, but Cloud curtly informed him there was nothing to discuss. Seconds later, the troopers began shoving the demonstrators, knocking many to the ground and beating them with nightsticks. Another detachment of troopers fired tear gas and mounted troopers charged the crowd on horseback. Televised images of “Bloody Sunday”, the brutal attack presented Americans and international audiences with horrifying images of marchers left bloodied and severely injured, and roused support for the Selma Voting Rights Campaign.
A second march was then planed for Tuesday, March 9, 1965. They issued a call for clergy and citizens from across the country to join them. Awakened to issues of civil and voting rights by years of Civil Rights Movement activities, and shocked by the television images of “Bloody Sunday,” hundreds of people responded to SCLC’s call. But there was an injunction against the march, so King cut a deal and agreed to turn around on the bridge and not enter the county, in return for a promise of no violence. This decision created a major rift between King with the SCLC and the students of SNCC who no longer trusted him. SNCC led their own demonstrations in Montgomery with hundreds of demonstrators including Alabama students, Northern students, and local adults, in protests near the capitol complex. The Montgomery County sheriff’s posse met them on horseback and drove them back, whipping them. The SNCC students responded violently, throwing bricks and bottles. One leader said later, “If we can’t sit at the table of democracy, we’ll knock the fucking legs off.”
Finally, on March 17th, the injunction against marching was lifted and the third march was organized. To ensure that this march would not be as unsuccessful as the first two marches were, President Johnson federalized the Alabama National Guard on March 20 to escort the march from Selma. On Sunday, March 21, close to 8,000 people assembled at Brown Chapel A.M.E. Church to commence the trek to Montgomery. In the first legs of the journey, the march was limited to 300 people over the two lane section of Highway 80. So at the end of the day most left and 300 camped in muddy fields so that they could walk the two lane section. When the highway was back to 4 lanes, additional marchers were ferried by bus and car to join the line, with over several thousand marchers participating on the outskirts of Montgomery. That night on a makeshift stage, a “Stars for Freedom” rally was held, with singers Harry Belafonte, Tony Bennett, Frankie Laine, Peter, Paul and Mary, Sammy Davis Jr., Joan Baez, Nina Simone and The Chad Miller Trio all performing. Thousands more people continued to join the march.
On Thursday, March 25, 25,000 people marched from St. Jude to the steps of the Montgomery Alabama State Capitol Building where King delivered the speech How Long, Not Long. He said:
“The end we seek is a society at peace with itself, a society that can live with its conscience. … I know you are asking today, How long will it take? I come to say to you this afternoon however difficult the moment, however frustrating the hour, it will not be long.”
After delivering the speech, King and the marchers approached the entrance to the capitol with a petition for Governor Wallace. A line of state troopers blocked the door. One announced that the governor was not in. Undeterred, the marchers remained at the entrance until one of Wallace’s secretaries appeared and took the petition.
The third march received national and international coverage; it publicized the marchers’ message without harassment by police and segregation supporters. Gaining more widespread support from other civil rights organizations in the area, this march was considered an overall success, with greater influence on the public. Voter registration drives were organized in black-majority areas across the South, but it took time to get people signed up.
The marches had a powerful effect in Washington. After witnessing TV coverage of “Bloody Sunday,” President Johnson met with Governor Wallace in Washington to discuss the civil rights situation in his state. He tried to persuade Wallace to stop the state harassment of the protesters. Two nights later, on March 15, 1965, Johnson presented a bill to a joint session of Congress. The bill was passed that summer and signed by Johnson as the Voting Rights Act.
Johnson’s televised speech in front of Congress was carried nationally; it was considered to be a watershed moment for the civil rights movement. He said:
“Even if we pass this bill, the battle will not be over. What happened in Selma is part of a far larger movement which reaches into every section and state of America. It is the effort of American Negroes to secure for themselves the full blessings of American life. Their cause must be our cause, too, because it is not just Negroes but really it is all of us who must overcome the crippling legacy of bigotry and injustice. And we shall overcome.”