In the early 1960s, Birmingham, Ala., was well known as a stronghold of segregation, its violent opposition to integration captured by haunting and tragic images that are still seared into our collective consciousness.
The pictures of police dogs and water cannons used on student demonstrators in the streets of Birmingham comes to mind as does the Sunday morning bombing of the city’s 16th Street Baptist Church that killed four African-American children.
But the tragic events that unfolded in Birmingham in 1963 also served as a catalyst, convincing the Kennedy Administration and then the Johnson Administration to push for the enactment of legislation that would become the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which ended legal segregation in this country.
During the March 23 Tuesday Talk webinar, Pulitzer Prize winning author and journalist Diane McWhorter put Birmingham’s role in the Civil Rights movement into perspective, capturing the mindset of both the segregationists and the civil rights leaders. In the process, McWhorter dispelled many misconceptions.
McWhorter, a Cleveland Park resident and a native of Birmingham, is the author of Carry Me Home: Birmingham, Alabama — The Climatic Battle of the Civil Rights Revolution, which won the Pulitzer Prize for general nonfiction in 2002. The book also won the J. Anthony Lukas Book Prize in 2002. Time Magazine named Carry Me Home one of the 100 best and most influential books since the magazine began publishing in 1923.
Diana Veiga, an award-winning writer and civic engagement coordinator for the D.C. Public Library System whose family history is deeply rooted in the civil rights movement, moderated the Tuesday Talk discussion.
Birmingham’s True Meaning
Before and after the publication of Carry Me Home, white Birminghamians consistently asked McWhorter why anyone would be writing a book about their city. McWhorter finally came up with a proper response, asking, “Would you ask why someone is writing about Gettysburg?”
“Birmingham is the Gettysburg of the second civil war,” said McWhorter, who is also the author of A Dream of Freedom, a young adult history of the civil rights movement.
Most people, she said, have no idea that Birmingham “was responsible for the end of segregation,” one of the main reasons it is so important in American history.
“That was the meaning I was trying to capture,” said McWhorter of her book, Carry Me Home. “The city always acted like it was just random that it happened (in Birmingham.)”
In early 1963, Martin Luther King, Fred Shuttlesworth, James Bevel, and other leaders of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, SCLC, launched a nonviolent campaign to assist the local black population in its efforts to desegregate Birmingham, arguably the most segregated city in the United States.
The campaign included boycotts of white-owned businesses, sit-ins and marches designed to prompt mass arrests. This included the arrest of King, who penned his now famous Letter from Birmingham Jail while incarcerated. That missive later became the basis for his 1964 book, Why We Can’t Wait. In 1964, King was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize largely as a result of his efforts to end segregation in Birmingham.
McWhorter pointed out that a minority of African-Americans participated actively in the early civil rights movement.
“The (black) community at large really didn’t get behind (with direct action) until fairly late in the day because they were worried about losing their lives basically,” said McWhorter.
This was certainly true in Birmingham. When SCLC leaders could not find enough adult volunteers to participate in the desegregation campaign, they recruited students, who faced down police officers armed with attack dogs and water cannons. McWhorter showed the infamous pictures of a police dog lunging at a black teenager and the use of water cannons against young demonstrators.
“These photographs, as much as anything, sort of turned public opinion against segregation because they showed the brutality in a way that was undeniable,” explained McWhorter, who writes articles about politics, race and culture for the New York Times, the Washington Post, USA Today and other publications. “These were child demonstrators.”
The Birmingham business community eventually capitulated, agreeing to end segregation in certain areas such as lunch counters and dressing rooms. (President Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act in June, 1964, ending segregation nationwide.)
“I always said segregation ended in Birmingham when the businessmen decided to end it,” said McWhorter. “The reason they decided to end it was because the movement made it intolerable for them.”
In Birmingham, the Ku Klux Klan acted as enforcers and vigilantes for the ruling power elite, and they were not through with their own campaign of terror in 1963. On September, 15, 1963, the Klan bombed the 16th Street Baptist Church, killing Carole Robertson, 14, Addie Mae Collins, 14, Cynthia Morris Wesley, 14, and Denise McNair, 11.
McWhorter showed a picture of each of the four murdered girls, identifying them by name and pointing out that Denise McNair was 11 years old, a year older than McWhorter was at the time. But as a young girl growing up in a prominent, white, Birmingham family, McWhorter felt the bombing and the seething, racial tensions in the city had little to do with her.
“I was a 10 year old growing up there on the wrong side of the revolution I always say,” McWhorter said.
McWhorter left Birmingham in 1970 to attend college at Wellesley in Massachusetts, and became a member of the counter culture, still believing the Civil Rights movement has little bearing on her own life story.
“I was lucky in the sense that segregation ended when I was 11,” she said. “I didn’t feel responsible for it whereas people who were 10 years older than I am who didn’t join the movement felt defensive about it.”
In the mid-1970s, after graduating from college, McWhorter stayed in New England and started writing for the Boston Phoenix, an alternative newspaper. One day in 1976, McWhorter stopped into the offices of the Phoenix to get a book review assignment from her editor.
Norton Publishing had published a series of books on each of the 50 states for the country’s bicentennial, including a book on Alabama, which was sitting on the editor’s shelf. The editor, aware of Alabama’s segregationist past, told McWhorter to get that “stinking (book) off my shelf.”
McWhorter complied and took the book back to her apartment in Cambridge, Mass., and read parts of it. One section of the book talked about Birmingham in the spring of 1963, describing the enormous pressure the civil rights movement put on local businesses to end segregation.
The businessmen held a meeting to discuss reaching a settlement with King to end the demonstrations. The city’s reputation for racial unrest had practically killed economic development over the past decade, but even so the city fathers “were too afraid to negotiate with King,” McWhorter explained.
“They were just chicken,” she stressed.
One businessman, an ardent segregationist named Sid Smyer, stood up and said, “I am a segregationist, but I am not a damn fool. I will take the fall for all of you, and my name will be in the newspapers for making a deal with Martin Luther King.”
As it turned out, Sid Smyer was McWhorter’s cousin, and she was unaware of the pivotal role he played until reading about him in the Norton history book. For the first time, McWhorter realized her family history was intertwined with the civil rights movement in Birmingham.
“I yelled in my apartment in Cambridge – that is my cousin!” remembered McWhorter. “That is what started me out.”
McWhorter spent the next 19 years researching and writing what would become her Pulitzer Prize winning book. She interviewed scores of people – civil rights leaders and volunteers, segregationists and Klansmen, bringing out their true voices and personalities and ultimately writing a very moving and personal history of the city’s long struggle with civil rights.
During the March 23 webinar, for example, McWhorter described Eugene Bull Connor, the elected police commissioner of Birmingham, as “sort of the cartoon villain of the movement who sicced dogs and unleashed water cannons on protestors,” while acting as “the public face of Birmingham and the Klan.” He had actually been installed in city hall by the ruling civic elite as far back as the 1930s.
In telling the story, the Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth emerges as the protagonist of the civil rights movement in McWhorter’s book while King is a secondary figure, his future still uncertain in 1963, a dramatic departure from other histories.
“King was really struggling with his mission up until the time he came to Birmingham,” said McWhorter.
She said, “It was kind of fun to foreground Shuttlesworth, and have King as part of the supporting cast.”
McWhorter described Shuttlesworth as a fearless, militant foil to King, who survived many brushes with death, including the 1956 bombing of his Bethel Baptist Church where he also lived. The bomb denoted while he was lying in his bed.
In one picture, Shuttlesworth’s arm is in a sling after Klansmen beat him up with chains in 1957 when he tried to enroll his daughters in an all-white high school. When displaying that picture of Shuttlesworth, McWhorter said, “He was very dapper as you can see.”
The Birmingham-Shuttlesworth International Airport was named in his honor in 2008. Shuttlesworth died in 2011 at the age of 89.
Moderator Veiga’s mother participated in the iconic 1965 marches in Selma, Ala., and during the Tuesday Talk, Veiga confessed that she “went through a period where I was really obsessed with Shuttlesworth.”
“In the pictures, (Shuttlesworth) looked like he really wanted to fight back,” said Veiga.
But the movement was based on nonviolence, forcing protestors to suppress their natural instincts not to fight back even when they were provoked.
“We had to be taught,” said Veiga. “It is not your natural reaction.”
McWhorter also wrote about her father in Carry Me Home. McWhorter’s father, Martin, was an avowed segregationist who McWhorter suspected of being in the Klan. (He denied that he was.)
McWhorter described her father as an “Archie Bunker type,” and she used his racist views to show how the majority of white people in Birmingham felt at the time.
“Everybody was racist among the white people except for a tiny minority,” she said. “But they didn’t (express) it as crudely as my father did.”
Not surprisingly, McWhorter was worried how her father would react when he read Carry Me Home.
“But he really liked the book,” McWhorter said. “He was very sardonic, and when he finished the book he told me, ‘I really didn’t know my life had that much meaning.’”
“That is what the book is about,” she added. “Birmingham never realized why it had meaning.”
Editor’s note: Diane McWhorter is now writing a new book about how German rocket scientist and ex-Nazi Wernher von Braun and other ex-Nazi engineers came to segregated Huntsville, Ala., to build the rocket that took Americans to the moon in 1969, winning the space race for the United States.