But for Birmingham: The National Movement

The following is an excerpt from Glenn T. Eskew’s But for Birmingham: The Local and National Movements in the Civil Rights Struggle.

Birmingham served as the stage for some of the most dramatic and important moments in the history of the civil rights struggle. In this vivid narrative account, Glenn Eskew traces the evolution of nonviolent protest in the city, focusing particularly on the sometimes problematic intersection of the local and national movements. 

Eskew describes the changing face of Birmingham’s civil rights campaign, from the politics of accommodation practiced by the city’s black bourgeoisie in the 1950s to local pastor Fred L. Shuttlesworth’s groundbreaking use of nonviolent direct action to challenge segregation during the late 1950s and early 1960s. 

In 1963, the national movement, in the person of Martin Luther King Jr., turned to Birmingham. The national uproar that followed on Police Commissioner Bull Connor’s use of dogs and fire hoses against the demonstrators provided the impetus behind passage of the watershed Civil Rights Act of 1964.

Eskew’s But for Birmingham was recently featured on our Martin Luther King Jr. Day recommended reading list.

Birmingham transformed the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. Civil rights activists had organized the SCLC in the aftermath of the Montgomery bus boycott as a national movement to coordinate the efforts of local protest groups. They selected the charismatic spokesman of the Montgomery Improvement Association (MIA), the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., as president. From 1957 until 1961 the SCLC drifted without much purpose, proposing voter registration drives and offering belated assistance to student activists following the sit-ins and the Freedom Rides. With corporate foundation grants that funded the Citizenship Education Program (CEP) and the Voter Education Project (VEP), the SCLC conducted workshops to register black voters. The NAACP viewed the fledgling civil rights organization as a threat to its interests. Radical black youths thought the SCLC lacked initiative. In 1961 the Albany Movement offered the SCLC an opportunity to return to the direct action strategy that had succeeded in Montgomery. Yet, unlike the simplicity of the bus boycott, the SCLC found the movement in southwestern Georgia more complex for a variety of reasons. With the inability of the SCLC to make substantial gains in Albany, critics questioned the effectiveness of the organization. Thus on the eve of the Spring 1963 demonstrations in Birmingham, the SCLC had little to show for six years of protest work. The success of the Birmingham campaign changed all that.

Although many people date the beginning of the civil rights movement with the Montgomery bus boycott of 1955–56, a similar boycott had occurred just two years before in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. The Reverend T. J. Jemison, a charismatic minister and newcomer to the city, headed an indigenous protest effort centered in the black church. He combined activist congregations with middle-class civic groups to form an umbrella organization that coordinated a boycott of city buses. During June 1953 Baton Rouge’s black community stayed off the buses until the city agreed to provide black patrons with better—yet still segregated—seating arrangements. The conservative nature of the demands reflected the transitional period in postwar black protest when black leaders advocated increased public services within the confines of Jim Crow. Jemison scheduled mass meetings to mobilize the black community behind the boycott. Modeled on church services, the meetings unified the participants, reinforced the community’s resolve, kept African Americans abreast of the boycott, and raised revenues for the protest. Indeed, Baton Rouge—with its charismatic leadership style, organizational structure, and moral tenor—reflected an evolving movement culture in the South centered in the black church.

Events in Montgomery, Alabama, brought the emerging reform movement to the nation’s attention. For months, black civic groups headed by Jo Ann Robinson and E. D. Nixon had planned a boycott of city buses in order to achieve more equitable seating and courteous treatment on public transportation. When Rosa Parks refused to surrender her bus seat to a white patron on December 1,1955, and was arrested for violating the city’s segregation ordinance, Robinson and Nixon asked her to serve as a focal point for the protest. As Robinson printed leaflets announcing a one-day boycott of the buses, Nixon contacted the Reverend Ralph Abernathy and other ministers to enlist the black church in the December 5 event. Most African Americans stayed off the buses that morning, and that afternoon the civic leaders and ministers organized the MIA as an umbrella group and named the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. as president.

Black Montgomery embraced the boycott. Packed mass meetings demonstrated the new movement culture as charismatic leaders led the congregation of civil rights activists in singing, praying, and planning. The umbrella organizational structure of the MIA successfully brought otherwise divided elements of the black community together in common cause. Black middle-class groups such as the Women’s Political Council, the Progressive Democratic Association, and the Citizens’ Steering Committee joined with the Interdenominational Ministerial Alliance in coordinating the boycott. The black masses of maids and laborers participated by attending mass meetings, staying off the buses, and walking to work or riding in car pools created by the MIA and operated by black professionals and their wives who owned cars. Even some white women assisted the bus boycott by driving their employees to and from domestic duties.

The African American unity surprised Montgomery’s white power structure, which tried to sow dissent in the movement by emphasizing class divisions within the black community. Yet when given the opportunity, the white officials failed to exploit divisions among the black leaders of the boycott. Feeling upstaged by King, E. D. Nixon began to distance himself from the protest. The Reverend U. J. Fields, the secretary of the MIA, resigned in June 1956, claiming that King and others in the organization’s leadership had “misused” funds for personal gain. A week passed in which MIA officials ultimately resolved the conflict by having King return from a vacation in California and appear with Fields at a mass meeting. The criticism from within the MIA actually strengthened the determination of the members, who increasingly articulated a rhetoric of nonviolence.

Glenn T. Eskew is associate professor of history at Georgia State University.