At a news conference, Shuttlesworth, a longtime Alabama activist, praised Birmingham as “an example of progressive racial relations” and was pleased to see “for all mankind a dawn of a new day, a promise for all men, a day of opportunity, and a new sense of freedom for all America.” The agreement, which came after weeks of African American demonstrations in the city, enraged the Ku Klux Klan and its police protectors, overseen by Birmingham’s racist public safety commissioner, Eugene “Bull” Connor.
The optimism that Shuttlesworth expressed went up in flames that Saturday evening, and since then America’s progress toward racial harmony has stumbled forward only intermittently. Not even the election of the nation’s first black president has put an end to America’s ugly racism, as the killing of George Floyd by a white Minneapolis police officer this month demonstrated once again.
In 1963, a very different president — John F. Kennedy — faced rioting in Birmingham, a city that had become a focus of the civil rights movement.
The Birmingham protest movement had its headquarters in the Gaston Motel, an establishment owned by city’s most prominent black businessman. King and other members of the movement’s leadership lodged at the motel. Word spread that the Klan, in its rage, planned to retaliate against the Birmingham agreement by murdering King with a well-placed bomb at the Gaston Motel.
When Bull Connor heard of the plot, he rejected the advice of a visiting police chief from Albany, Ga., who urged him to set up a visible presence outside the motel to protect King and other black leaders. Dismissing the notion, Connor declared he wasn’t going to “guard that n----- son-of-a-bitch.”
The blast rocked the motel, the sound of the explosion carrying far through Birmingham on the humid, heavy air. Bars and pool halls in the nearby neighborhoods emptied, blacks running toward the motel. The dynamite knocked out a wall, shattered windows and ripped apart the motel office just below Room 30, King’s suite. A mob swarmed outside seeking vengeance.
Though King was spared, having left Birmingham earlier to return to Atlanta to preach at his church on Sunday, riots ripped through the city, fed further by two other bombs at the house of King’s brother, A.D. King. The first landed on the lawn; its impact was mostly limited to alerting A.D. King, his wife and five children who raced out the back to safety before a much larger bomb landed near the porch, ripping bricks off the walls, caving in the roof and hurling the front door deep into the house.
By 4:30 a.m., as Mother’s Day dawned, Birmingham lay in devastation like a city in the aftermath of a wartime assault. The unrest had spread over a 28-block area. Fifty people had been injured. One policeman was stabbed. Scores of cars and police vehicles were destroyed, some were burned, and six small stores and a two-story apartment house went up in flames.
The rioters weren’t Martin Luther King Jr.’s soldiers well-schooled in nonviolence, but rather long-suffering African Americans, scarred by the brutality regularly inflicted on them by police and white society, and invisible until they expressed their rage by torching their own community.
In the afternoon, President Kennedy touched down on the South Lawn of the White House in an Army helicopter, cutting short his Mother’s Day weekend stay at Camp David. His attorney general and brother, Robert F. Kennedy, rolled up in his Ford Galaxie convertible packed with three aides and his dog Brummus. The men congregated inside the Oval Office along with four top figures from the military for an emergency meeting. The Oval Office conversation debated whether more violence was on the way, whether federal troops were needed to maintain law and order, and whether the agreement between the black community and Birmingham business leaders was in danger of falling apart.
Kennedy, seated in his back-comforting rocking chair, had the delicate task of preserving the racial progress the agreement represented and ensuring business people and the city’s other white residents that violence would not erupt again. He knew he needed to be compassionate, flexible and well-informed.
Without inflaming Birmingham’s white population by appearing to side with King, the president nonetheless wanted secretly to hear the civil rights leader’s reading of the situation. Assistant Attorney General Burke Marshall, who helped navigate the agreement to fruition, had already spoken to King, who was rushing back to Birmingham to urge blacks to stay off the streets. “He intends to go around the city,” Marshall told the president, “and visit pool halls and saloons and talk to the Negroes and preach against violence.”
Kennedy wanted to hear more from King. He asked Marshall to get King on the phone, and the adviser went to another room to phone the civil rights leader.
The president had brought to the meeting a stack of papers, among which were copies of King’s most recent comments. Selecting one of the pages, Kennedy read out loud that King didn’t want the bombings to jeopardize the agreement, a sentiment the president shared.
“Now there’s one other thing,” Kennedy said, shuffling through the papers, “where he’s asked me to make a statement.” He then read a portion of a United Press International news report in which King was quoted making a direct appeal to the president: King “said today the new outbursts would make it mandatory to take a forthright stand against the indignities which Negro citizens still face.”
Marshall returned to Oval Office having asked King what kind of statement he advised the president to make. King just hoped the president would steer people away from violence and, according to Marshall, call on “everyone to be decent and respect law and order.” King said that, as long as there were no more bombings or other incidents, he expected the community to stay calm. But if Birmingham’s business leaders reversed themselves and rejected the agreement, King warned, “I can’t control the people.”
At 9 p.m., Kennedy spoke on live television for barely a minute, his face framed in a tight camera shot. He said he was “deeply concerned” about events in Birmingham and mentioned the bombings of A.D. King’s house and the Gaston Motel, and the rioting that ensued, noting the damage, injuries and police brutality against African Americans. He said the government was prepared to do whatever was necessary “to preserve order, to protect the lives of its citizens, and to uphold the law of the land.” He praised the Birmingham agreement as “a fair and just accord” and vowed that the federal government would not allow it “to be sabotaged by a few extremists on either side.”
He called upon Birmingham residents “to realize that violence only breeds more violence, and that good will and good faith are most important now.” In conclusion, he made clear his willingness to use force to maintain order and to ensure the settlement was enacted: He was dispatching troops trained in riot control to military bases near Birmingham, and he was taking preparatory steps for federalizing the Alabama National Guard should their deployment become necessary.
With the resolution of a leader concerned about all of his constituents, the president straddled the line, delivering a strong, forceful endorsement of desegregation and equal rights; he also conveyed that he would brook no more violence from the black community.
Birmingham fell quiet. King’s exhortations in churches, pool halls and bars helped preserve the peace. But reverberations of its unrest were rocking cities around the country: Demonstrations erupted in Jackson, Miss., and Raleigh, N.C., and spread to the North. Black Muslims sparked violent clashes in the New York City neighborhood of Harlem, and protests flared in Philadelphia, Chicago, and Syracuse and New Rochelle, N.Y.
A troubling realization settled over the White House: Racial strife, far from abating, was intensifying.
In response to the wildfire of protests sweeping the nation, Kennedy moved tentatively toward a dramatic solution. His aides began drafting legislation that would give the government the power to speed up integration of public facilities and schools. The president realized that action in Congress was necessary because Southern states easily subverted constitutional requirements on desegregation, and court efforts were circuitous and time-consuming.
On June 11, after Alabama Gov. George Wallace stood in the schoolhouse door to block black students from enrolling at the University of Alabama, Kennedy decided the time for action had come. With urgency and speed, he and his advisers cobbled together a speech that would come to define a part of Kennedy’s legacy, and at 8 p.m. that evening, he settled in front of television cameras in the Oval Office to announce plans to introduce civil rights legislation.
As he spoke, the camera slowly zoomed in, enhancing the gravity and importance of his words. Framed in a tight head-and-shoulders shot, looking crisp in a white shirt, narrow tie and a handkerchief poking from his jacket pocket, the president asked the nation to take a lesson from the scenes in Alabama; he challenged Americans to be better, drawing on words that were in many ways about himself and his own journey that had brought him to this point: “I hope that every American, regardless of where he lives, will stop and examine his conscience.” He reminded his listeners that America “was founded on the principle that all men are created equal, and that the rights of every man are diminished when the rights of one man are threatened.”
As he spoke into the television camera that June evening, the president revealed a passion and commitment to civil rights that he had never before shown. In this address 2½ years into his term, the president found his moral voice, his commitment of mind and heart. Without hesitation or equivocation, he embraced black justice.
“Recognizing the call of history,” early King biographer Lerone Bennett Jr. wrote, “Kennedy made an abrupt turn and accepted the mantle of moral leadership King had urged upon him.”
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