Rare is the city that features, on the home page of its website, a period photo of two helmeted white cops handcuffing a young black woman.
But things have changed in Birmingham, where the grim black-and-white image promotes a year-long celebration of the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King’s campaign to integrate the city’s public facilities.
It was a time when the city’s public safety commissioner, the fittingly nicknamed Bull Connor, was a world-famous brute, and when its own nickname, thanks to dozens of unsolved, racially motivated explosions, was “Bombingham.”
And 1963 was the year when a desperate King sent children out against police lines; when dogs and hoses were loosed on them; when a Klansmen’s bomb at a church killed four girls dressed in Sunday white.
This turning point in the civil rights movement is marked this year in a series of events and exhibitions.
“It seems Birmingham is really dealing with its own history,” says Laura Schultz of Wilmington, N.C., on a visit with her two children to the city’s civil rights sites. “It’s honestly confronting its past.”
That past includes these landmark events of 1963:
King’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” written on scrap paper while the civil rights leader was in solitary confinement for protest-marching in violation of a court order, was his stirring reply to a call from moderate white religious leaders to adopt less confrontational tactics.
The “Children’s Crusade,” the result of King’s decision — highly controversial at the time within the movement — to allow hundreds of students to demonstrate. They were attacked by dogs, pummeled by high-pressure fire hoses and thrown in jails with common criminals.
The bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church on Sept. 15, which, along with the images of police brutality from the demonstrations earlier in the year, helped swing U.S. public opinion against legal segregation.
King said he targeted Birmingham because it was “the most segregated city in the United States.” Here, a confluence of post-Civil War industrialization and Jim Crow racism produced something like an American apartheid. Segregation was specified on zoning maps and extended even to elevators. The races shared streets, sewers and little else.
King’s plan was to force the city to integrate rest rooms, lunch counters and other places with a boycott of downtown stores and illegal but non-violent marches.
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