The year 1963 was pivotal in African Americans’ struggle for freedom and equal rights. At first, much of the focus was on Birmingham, Alabama, often regarded as the most brutally segregated city in the United States. Black leaders Fred Shuttlesworth of the Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights (ACMHR) and Martin Luther King, Jr. of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) organized a series of nonviolent protests aimed at downtown business interests. Their activities included boycotts of segregated stores, protest marches, and sit-ins. Their most notorious opponent was Commissioner of Public Safety
Eugene “Bull” Connor. Connor had been active in suppressing blacks in the city for years, including canceling a parade in 1951 honoring twenty-year-old baseball star and Birmingham native Willie Mays. But Shuttlesworth, King, and others were savvy enough to know how to use Connor’s belligerence for their own interests. Predictably, Connor filled the city jails with protesters. In April, one of those jailed was King, who wrote his memorable essay “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” while incarcerated. In the letter, King explained the necessity of nonviolent direct action, the difference between just and unjust laws, and the importance of white people aiding rather than resisting the moral imperative of equality.1 Later, as events in Birmingham lurched toward complete chaos and mass violence, Connor turned fire hoses and snarling German shepherds against black children.