May 3, 1963. Forty-nine years ago today, the seven-times elected Safety Commissioner of Birmingham, Alabama, Theophilus Eugene “Bull” Connor, ordered the firemen under his control to join together powerful water hoses, mount them on a tripod, and blast the resulting gale-force barrage of water through heavy-duty nozzles called monitor guns. Connor and his firemen must have been facing an enormous conflagration, right? After all, with a force equal to 100 pounds per square inch, the water surged strongly enough to sheer bark off a tree, strip clothing off of innocent bystanders accidentally caught in the spray or even knock them off their feet.
Actually, there wasn’t any fire in Birmingham at that moment, at least not where the firemen were aiming their hoses, around Kelly Ingram Park in the city’s black business district. The hoses did everything I just mentioned, except put out a fire. What Connor intended to put out was children.
I learned bout these events in detail while researching WE’VE GOT A JOB: THE 1963 BIRMINGHAM CHILDREN’S MARCH (Peachtree Publishers, February 2012). To explain them, let me back up the timeline.
In January 1963, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. came to town from Atlanta to help a local black Baptist minister, Reverend Fred Shuttlesworth, force the city to undo its Segregation Ordinances. Among other requirements, these laws, adopted in the early 1940s, prevented “Negroes” from eating in restaurants with white people unless the two groups were separated by a seven-foot-high wall. The code also prevented them from playing “with each other in any game of baseball, softball, or basketball” or checkers or cardsin any inn, restaurant, or home.
Dr, King’s plan called for civil rights protesters to picket and sit-in at segregated stores and restaurants, get arrested, and “fill the jails.” Once the jails were filled, other protesters could continue to break the law—without consequences. Then, once they could do so with impunity, the city’s criminal “justice” system would disintegrate, and, surely, the city fathers—all three ruling commissioners were men—would have to agree to rescind the odious ordinances. All King and Shuttlesworth needed were about 1,000 protesters willing to go to jail.
Scheduled to begin in early April, the plan was doomed, however, by a fatal miscalculation, as you can see from the following timeline.
On April 3, only 65 demonstrators sat-in at segregated lunch counters, and only 20 of them were arrested. On April 4, four were arrested. April 5: 10. April 6: 29. April 7: 26. But, on April 8: 0. And, on April 9: 3. At this rate, it would take years to fill Birmingham’s jails. Actually, they would never fill because no one would stay in jail that long. There would simply be a revolving door of reluctant protesters taking each others’ meager spots in a few cells.
Hoping for greater numbers, nevertheless, activist black ministers kept calling for volunteers. But, by the end of the month, only a couple of hundred, at most, had been cajoled into getting themselves imprisoned. They included Shuttlesworth and King, who wrote a soon-to-be-famous letter from jail; however, they, too, were eventually released.
Believing in the plan but not the strategy, another minister, James Bevel, proposed a radical alternative: jail children. His rationale was that, whereas adults legitimately feared losing their jobs while they were in prison, kids had less to lose. His proposal caused dissension within the black community—the black adult community, that is—but hardly any among the kids themselves. As Arnetta Streeter, one of the demonstrators I interviewed, told me, “It was something that the children took hold to and wouldn’t let go.”
So, 49 years ago yesterday, May 2, 1963, about 500 children, aged nine to eighteen, streamed out of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church, marched a block or so up the street, were arrested by Connor’s police force, and shoved into paddy wagons or filed onto school buses, and taken to jail. In other words, in one day, twice as many youngsters offered to go to jail as adults had in the entire previous month. The cells were filling! The plan seemed to be working!
But, that was a problem. Connor grew desperate. So, when hundreds more children piled into and swarmed out of the church the next day, May 3, he retaliated with the hoses.
Remarkably, although children, firemen, and bystanders were injured, the marchers kept on coming. Connor’s next tactic was to sic German shepherds on them. No one was killed, fortunately, but some were dangerously bitten, and many more were terrorized.
What happened next? It was all up to the numbers of kids who would be willing to continue to face hoses, dogs, and other brutalities. I encourage you to read WE’VE GOT A JOB to find out.
Meanwhile, check out my daily Children’s March Countdown on my website.