Remembering That May of 1963

Last week marked the anniversary of one of the most gallant displays of the belief in American democracy. In 1963, the nation was horrified seeing law-enforcement officers with high-pressured water hoses and dogs on the streets of Birmingham attack young people. This became known as the Children's Crusade.

The abuse inflicted was obvious. And it may have been that these children saved not only the Birmingham campaign, but also the prospects of the civil rights movement of the 1960s going forward.

Coming off what many viewed as a failure in Albany, Ga., in 1962, there was a belief that Martin Luther King Jr. was no longer effective as the leader of the movement. Moreover, taking on Birmingham, given its commitment to segregation, and a governor (George Wallace) who stated in his inaugural address earlier that year "I say segregation now, segregation tomorrow, and segregation forever," seemed like a Herculean effort.

For most of the Birmingham campaign, the effort was going much like Albany. There were demonstrations, followed by arrests, but nothing noteworthy to draw the nation's attention.

King himself was incarcerated, which produced his epic "Letter from Birmingham Jail," but that also did nothing to move the needle in swaying public opinion.
It was an aide to King, James Bevel, who introduced the idea of getting the children involved. Initially reluctant, King finally acquiesced.

After convincing parents to let their children participate, the movement's good fortunes benefited by three allies, perhaps unforeseen in the beginning.

The first fortune was timing. Birmingham was in the midst of a mayoral election. The Kennedy administration asked King not to begin the campaign until after the results of election, to which King agreed.

Albert Boutwell defeated Eugene "Bull" Connor in the race for mayor.

Though Boutwell was more moderate in his views toward segregation, he was a seen by the movement as only offering a kinder gentler version of what they sought to eliminate, which, based on the Albany experience, was still unacceptable.

At the time of the election, Connor was commissioner of public safety, an elected position. But the city of Birmingham changed its charter in 1962 so that commissioners served at the pleasure of the mayor.

After losing to Boutwell, Connor filed an injunction arguing that he was an elected official and should be allowed to fulfill his term in office.

This produced the second piece of good fortune for the movement --a desperate Bull Connor.

Out to prove his value to the white residents of Birmingham, Connor un-leashed the dogs and hoses on the young protesters, which provided the third piece of good fortune -- television.

It is hard to imagine today, but at the time of the Birmingham campaign the nightly news lasted only 15 minutes. But television was in Birmingham to capture the transformative moment.

Days before the police dogs and water hoses, a Gallup poll found that only four percent of the nation thought civil rights was a national issue. But once television captured Connor's brutality, overnight, 52 percent felt civil rights was a national issue.

Among those were President Kennedy, who prior to the Birmingham campaign offered tepid support for the cause of civil rights. By the president's own admission, watching the events in Birmingham sickened him.

Roughly one month later Kennedy would speak to the nation, elevating civil rights to a "moral issue."

May 2, 1963 should be remembered as the day a group of children stood proxy for a nation badly in need of a social-justice baptism. It was also after Birmingham that the subsequent civil rights movements became more integrated.
Their efforts changed the civil rights narrative, paving the way for not only desegregation in Birmingham, but also the successful March on Washington, and the 1964 Civil Rights Act.

Through their heroic lens we can also see the campaign in Selma, the Free Speech Movement, and the Vietnam protests. They were a data point, unique to the 60s, that I discuss in my forthcoming book, where there was a major grassroots movement every year between 1960-1968.

In recalling the Birmingham campaign, King stated that the key to Children's Crusade was what they possessed internally: "He (Bull Connor) knew a kind of physics that somehow didn't relate to the transphysics that we knew about. And that was the fact that there was a certain kind of fire that no water could put out."