Self-Defense in the Civil Rights Movement: the Lessons of Birmingham, 1963

Hope is the fuel upon which working-class movements for social change draw their core strength. But hope divorced from solid organizing leads no-where. So, if we are to continue to propel our class forward it is vital that we learn the full lessons of how our sweetest victories are seized from the hands of our oppressors. Birmingham, 1963, represents one such success story, an inspiring tale that pitched Martin Luther King’s determined civil rights activists against the steel town’s white supremacists who, as folk singer Phil Ochs tells it, literally fed their dogs on civil rights. A pivotal struggle against the evils of segregation that achieved its crowning glory shortly after thousands of children peacefully stood-up to the seething racist violence of Bull Connor. But while Connor became world-famous for allowing his police dogs to tear flesh off the bodies of peaceful protestors, what is often overlooked in sanitized narratives of this story of good versus evil is the full context in which King’s nonviolent victory was obtained. Digging beneath this peaceful patina is however critical if we are to comprehend the important role that violent self-defense fulfilled within Birmingham’s black community in opposing the horrors of segregation.

Striking for Justice, and the Corporate Resistance

To begin with we should recall how we arrived at the tragic situation where, in 1963, white supremacy reigned supreme in large parts of America. A state of affairs, that it should be emphasized, had never gone unchallenged by ordinary people in Birmingham, whose working-class residents had a long tradition of leading militant struggles against inequality. An early example of such resistance is provided by the 1919 steel strike which united some 365,000 trade unionists against America’s most powerful corporate concern, the steel industry. This monumental class battle stretched out over three hard months; and while the strike ultimately proved unsuccessful, it was not because steel workers of all ethnicities were not prepared to struggle together. Instead the strikes failure can be largely rooted in the conservative and racist leadership of the broader trade union movement that had actively sought to sabotage the organizing of this rank-and-file uprising. Facing-off against enemies within their own ranks was hard enough, but the bosses of U.S. Steel made matters much worse by using their immense wealth and power to further divide the working-class by driving forward America’s first Red Scare. And as part and parcel of this anti-democratic scare, the bosses attempted to smear all trade unionists with being secret communists’ who aimed to subvert the American Dream: a powerful line of propaganda that was carefully melded with anti-Semitism and relentlessly propagated by Birmingham’s most powerful elites well into the 1960s through groups like the Constitutional Educational League.

But propaganda wasn’t the only weapon deployed by the U.S. Steel bosses in the service of prejudice, and violence had always been a mainstay of strike-breaking strategies. This meant that by necessity workers were forced to arm themselves in self-defense against their employers. A stunning example of such working-class resistance against deadly violence was famously seen in the victory achieved during one of the greatest labor revolts in U.S. history: the strikes of the Minneapolis Teamsters in 1934. In this case, workers remained united after the police had murdered two strikers and shot scores of others; and despite being confronted by all manner of oppressive forces — including the conservative tops of their own trade union movement — the defiant and militant Teamsters union (with the support of many other workers) eventually secured a stunning success in Minneapolis. This historic win in-turn inspired many other working-class victories which, in 1937, led to the creation of the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) as a fighting counterpart to the conservative trade unionism of the American Federation of Labor (AFL). So, as one might expect, it was to the inspiring and militant actions of the CIO and of all workers fighting against segregation that the hate-spewing propaganda mill of the Constitutional Educational League was turned with a vengeance.

Formed in the heat of the U.S. Steel dispute in 1919 one of the most significant secret benefactors to the Constitutional Educational League was Birmingham’s king mule, Charles DeBardeleben, whose company happened to be the largest commercial producer of coal in Alabama. DeBardeleben’s central and longstanding involvement with supporting this League, which is very much connected to his commitment to racial segregation, is taken-up within the pages of Diane McWhorter’s Pulitzer winning book Carry Me Home: Birmingham, Alabama: The Climactic Battle of the Civil Rights Revolution (Simon & Schuster, 2001). Herein McWhorter describes how in the mid-1930s:

“The [Constitutional Educational] league, whose southern headquarters was in DeBardeleben’s office building [in Birmingham], was a clearinghouse of propaganda for the interlocking anti-Roosevelt action groups. But it was also part of a global network of pro-Nazi propagandists centered in Germany, where Adolf Hitler (who had been sponsored by the steel tycoon Fritz Thyssen) was red-baiting any progressive impulse, making liberals synonymous not simply with Communists but with Jews. The Constitutional Educational League had identified the demon-agent of Jewish-Communist internationalism in America. He was, of course, the CIO’s John L. Lewis. The league’s hero, the recipient of its 1938 ‘Americanism Award,’ was Martin Dies.” (Carry Me Home, pp.53-4)

During these dark days it was common for trade unionists to be picked-up off the streets by corporate-backed private militias and never seen again. One such individual who organized such “fishing trips” for working-class militants, and who received the protection of the local ruling-class during this period was Walter Hanna, a man who sat at “the hub” of Birmingham’s anti-union machinery. McWhorter explains how Hanna…

“…had proven himself by crushing the 1934 ore strike as a captain of the National Guard and had since moved on to the U.S. Steel payroll—with his own secret phone number—under the job description of ‘security.’ His duties included funneling the Corporation’s money into anti-red ‘Americanization’ efforts and coordinating ‘fishing trips’ for radicals with the Birmingham police’s Red Squad.” (Carry Me Home, p.44)

But by the end of thirties, the era of such blatant “payroll vigilantism” was coming to an end, most specifically because of the ongoing efforts of the working-class to resist such egregious examples of institutionalized violence.

“Now, instead of trying to crush the union with force, the Big Mules would wield a nonviolent club: the racism they had fomented whenever the have-nots threatened to organize across racial lines. Rather than give specific orders to the vigilantes, they would delegate political intermediaries to oversee strategic racial violence.

“That was where Bull Connor, Birmingham’s new commissioner of public safety, came into the picture. To prepare for his assignment, he would have to claim the issue of race as his personal badge.” (Carry Me Home, p.45)

Connor hence rose to challenge of defending big businesses vested interest in maintaining segregation in Birmingham, and the Ku Klux Klan, working in close association with Connor, “were the vigilantes to whom the industrialists would now assign the hands-on anti-union fight”. Moreover, as McWhorter pointed out, one of Connor’s first significant acts as public safety commissioner “would be to make Robert Chambliss his functionary within the Klan, bringing him purpose as well as material support, and a place in history.” Chambliss, then known as Dynamite Bob to his friends in city hall, is now most infamous for belatedly being found guilty (in 1977) of murdering four little girls during the 1963 bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church. Bigot was too soft a word to describe Chambliss, and angered at the supposed softness of the Klan, he had played a leading role in the North Alabama Citizens Council during the 1950s — a movement which “had a fairly simple goal: to devastate organized labor.” This Citizens Council movement of institutionalized hate was fully backed by Birmingham’s business elite, such that in 1955, Sid Smyer, who was Birmingham’s most powerful real estate mogul, happily recruited the well-established anti-Semitic demagogue Asa Carter to head-up the then newly formed North Alabama Citizens Council.

As an important aside, years later Asa Carter’s fascist-inspired literary screeds would form the basis for Clint Eastwood’s blockbusting western, The Outlaw Josey Wales (1976), a film whose “underlying message is that decent southerners were not fighting to save slavery, but to defend themselves and their families from marauding, murderous Union soldiers.” Around the same time Carter also reinvented himself as a Cherokee Indian (using the alias “Forrest Carter”), publishing a highly problematic New Age bestseller The Education of Little Tree (1976). Of course, despite these twists in his profitable undertakings, there were no signs that Carter had dropped his racism. Thus, just a couple of years after joining the leadership of the industrialists’ North Alabama Citizens Council in the 1950s, Carter went on to create an even more extreme version of the Klan: the Ku Klux Klan of the Confederacy. This Klan faction being best remembered for its involvement in a vile attack carried out on Labor Day, 1957, when six of their members kidnapped a black man from the street (at random), castrated him, and then left him to die by the side of a road. In what represented a rare act of justice (for the time), the six Klansman involved in this disgusting act were quickly captured and imprisoned. But it turned out that this justice was only temporary, and the Klansman were pardoned just a few years later when George Wallace — whose speechwriter was now Asa Carter — became the new governor of Alabama in 1963.

Opposing White Supremacy in Diverse Ways

To say that the black working poor of the Southern American states had to face violence is a massive understatement. Instead, the black population faced daily threats on their very ability to live, which is precisely why a commitment to armed self-defense was such a normal part of everyday life in many parts of America. This however did not stop some determined activists — often men of God — from insisting that the only moral way to oppose white supremacy was through non-violent civil disobedience. Reverend Fred Shuttlesworth was one such individual, a courageous man of action who from his pulpit in Birmingham did more than most to end to segregation. Never being one to be put off by state repression, when the actions of local politicians resulted in the forced closure of Shuttleworth’s chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), the Reverend immediately set-up a new group (in 1956) called the Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights. It was this group which would go on to provide the bulk of the disciplined civil rights activists that served as the backbone of Martin Luther King’s famous 1963 campaign in Birmingham.

On Christmas Eve in 1956, Shuttlesworth’s house had then been flattened by a bomb attack – which according to FBI sources was likely the work of Dynamite Bob – and miraculously the Reverend emerged from the rubble unscathed. Uncowed by such violence, just a few weeks later Shuttlesworth then joined forces with Reverend Martin Luther King (amongst many others) as a cofounder of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). But despite Shuttleworth’s deep commitment to nonviolence, when the police refused to protect the Reverend’s house from future Klan attacks, he consented to allowing armed members of his church to guard his parsonage. Such a life-sustaining embrace of self-defense was a common (if not commonly acknowledged) part of the non-violent strategies deployed within the civil rights movement.

In fact in the same year that the SCLC was founded, the former head of the Monroe, North Carolina, chapter of the NAACP, Robert Williams — a one-time soldier who was not so enamoured by the emancipatory potential of pacificism – formally created a locally-based self-defense organization to repel Klan violence in his neighbourhood. However, what made the gun-toting Williams’s most controversial, was not his commitment to self-defense per se, but it was his vocal advocacy for “armed self-reliance” within the violently segregated towns of the South. Unsurprisingly it was his active and very vocal opposition to the pacifist doctrine of the mainstream civil rights leaders that contributed to his notoriety. As Raymond Arsenault highlights in his insightful history of this period:

“In July 1959 [Williams] began to disseminate his views in a weekly newspaper called The Crusader, attracting the attention of everyone from an admiring Malcolm X of the Nation of Islam to Martin Luther King, who felt compelled to speak out against him. In September the pacifist magazine Liberation featured a debate between King and Williams, in which Williams expressed ‘great respect’ for pacifists but insisted that nonviolence was something ‘that most of my people’ cannot embrace. ‘Negroes must be willing to defend themselves, their women, their children and their homes,’ he declared. ‘Nowhere in the annals of history does the record show a people delivered from bondage by patience alone.’ King countered with an eloquent distillation of nonviolent philosophy but acknowledged that even Gandhi recognized the moral validity of self-defense. The exchange, later reprinted in the Southern Patriot, left editor Anne Braden and many other nonviolent activists with the uneasy feeling that Williams spoke for a broad cross-section of the black South. As [Anne] Braden conceded, Williams’s views on armed self-reliance were not only common, they were likely to spread ‘unless change comes rapidly.’ The dim prospects for such change in the absence of direct action on a mass scale underscored the dilemma that all civil rights activists faced in the late 1950s. As the decade drew to a close, no one seemed to have a firm grasp on how to turn social philosophy into mass action, or how to awaken the black South without risking mass violence.” (Freedom Riders, pp.81-2) [1]

But inspiration for how such mass action might force the hand of the ruling-class was not far away, and in July 1959, 500,000 steelworkers refused to kow-tow to the dictates of the steel bosses by launching a strike that was finally won after a mammoth 116 days – making it one of the biggest industrial actions in U.S. history. Yet although the striking workers succeeded in beating back their employers, the steel union was still crippled by a right-wing leadership that, bolstered by the conservative heads of the AFL, proved “only too willing to exploit any [racial] divisions among the Steelworkers.” This meant that despite the heroic efforts of socialist organizers who had strived to unite both black and white steel workers throughout the twentieth-century, when the historic 1959 strike took place the union still only really represented the full interests of white workers. Over time this regressive racial dynamic would change as the rank-and-file successfully exerted itself over their backwards looking leadership.

Martin Luther King, for one, was always conscious of how the eternal fight against racism was umbilically-linked to that of the labor movement, and speaking in December 1961 at a major trade union event King expounded a few eternal socialist truths:

“Negroes are almost entirely a working people. There are pitifully few Negro millionaires, and few Negro employers. Our needs are identical with labor’s needs — decent wages, fair working conditions, livable housing, old age security, health and welfare measures, conditions in which families can grow, have education for their children and respect in the community. That is why Negroes support labor’s demands and fight laws which curb labor. That is why the labor-hater and labor-baiter is virtually always a twin-headed creature spewing anti-Negro epithets from one mouth and anti-labor propaganda from the other mouth.”

The only slight criticism that can be made regarding King’s statement is that he chose to deliver his speech at the annual Convention of George Meany’s AFL-CIO — the very same organization whose right-leaning executive council would, in 1963, decline to support the civil rights movements famous March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. This outreach on King’s part to the upper echelons of the trade union movement was of course entirely in keeping with the close working relationship that the nonviolent preacher maintained with liberals of all types during this period of struggle (something that changed near the end of his life).

We might also say that King’s speech about twin-headed creatures spewing hate might well have been a description of Bull Connor and his steel industry financiers, whose backing of segregation were clearly exposed to the American public when CBS aired their one-hour special “Who speaks for Birmingham?” in 1961. This broadcast included shocking revelations about the violent attacks inflicted on the Freedom Riders that the CBS reporter, Howard K. Smith, had witnessed taking place in Birmingham. The CBS broadcast also included an interview with Reverend Fred Shuttlesworth allowing him to speak out about the common-day brutality of living under white supremacist rule in Birmingham. And in many ways, it was the widespread revulsion at the release of this controversial television program that encouraged the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) to acquiesce to Shuttleworth’s persistent calls for King to come to Birmingham to assist the city’s residents in their battle against Bull Connor.

The Birmingham Campaign

So it came to pass that in early 1963 King and his fellow SCLC activists embarked upon their now famous nonviolent campaign for civil rights in Birmingham: a successful campaign whose outcome has been recounted many times before, but perhaps never in more detail than that provided in Glenn Eskew’s outstanding book, But for Birmingham: The Local and National Movements in the Civil Rights Struggle (University of North Carolina Press, 1997). Most notably the triumphant conclusion of Birmingham Campaign proved critical to the consolidation of King’s influence over the civil rights movement because, as Eskew reminds his readers, prior to 1963 the SCLC still “had little to show for six years of protest work.” Either way, the Birmingham Campaign was a success and King is correctly remembered for leading it, and Eskew correctly sets the scene for King’s intervention by highlighting the continuity that existed between Bull Connor’s violent opposition to trade unions and his longstanding commitment to racism.

“Before Connor earned a reputation for racial brutality maintaining segregation, he was known for violently preventing the unionization of Birmingham’s heavy industries. The two issues were related. Popular front liberals Virginia and Clifford Durr recalled that Connor had directed the ‘steel police’ at TCI. It was here that he took lessons in law and order before his election to the city commission. During the organizational drives of the 1930s, Connor routinely held unionists ‘in jail incommunicado for months at a time. A lot of them just disappeared. Nobody knows where they went, just died or killed or thrown in the river, or something,’ the Durrs charged.” (But for Birmingham, p.91)

Yet in response to this horrifying violence, civil rights protests remained a persistent feature of life in Birmingham. Students played a particularly prominent role in this ever-evolving movement, and throughout the summer of 1961 they organized sit-ins, which eventually led to their forming their own independent organization in January 1962. Therefore, just a few months after the students had formed their Anti-Injustice Committee, Shuttlesworth and the dedicated members of his own group (the ACMHR) helped them launch a “selective buying campaign” in Birmingham. A boycott which gathered steam throughout the summer and was given a welcome helping-hand when Shuttlesworth managed to persuade the SCLC to hold their annual convention in the city at the tail end of the year. This brief visit from civil rights leaders led to limited concessions being granted from elements of the city’s white power structure, including changes that were backed by Sid Smyer — who in the face of growing resistance from civil rights activists was beginning to realize that his chances for future profiteering were being negatively impacted upon by the most brutal elements of segregation. Connor, however, was having none of it, and those concessions that had been granted to Birmingham’s black population were immediately retracted when the SCLC dignitaries left town.

Never being one to shy from a righteous battle, Shuttlesworth continued trying to persuade King to lead his next campaign against segregation in his home town, and as we all know, King finally relented in early 1963. But in order to placate the traditional black leadership class of Birmingham — who were generally opposed to Shuttlesworth’s confrontational approach to challenging white supremacy — King and the SCLC agreed that they would only launch their fight against segregation after the local population had the chance to remove Connor by the ballot box. In course of these elections Connor was officially defeated, but Connor was adamant that he wasn’t going to be forced out by a democratic plebiscite. This meant that with Connor still in charge, the first day of the integrationist demonstrations took place on April 4, 1963, with the commencement of an all-out boycott of downtown stores, which was combined with sit-ins at a variety of lunch counters. And at the end of this important first day of peaceful action, twenty campaigners found themselves in prison — nearly all of whom were ACMHR members. King and his entourage arrived in town later that evening, whereupon further volunteers were sought to participate in ongoing acts of civil disobedience.

“Reflecting the desire of the integrationists for equal access as consumers and equal job opportunities, the ACMHR-SCLC announced campaign objectives were as follows: first, the ‘desegregation of lunch counters and all public facilities in all downtown stores’; second, the ‘immediate establishment of fair hiring practices in those stores, including employment of qualified Negroes for white collar jobs’; third, ‘the dropping of all charges against those who have been arrested during sit-ins’; fourth, the ‘establishment of fair hiring practices in all city departments’; fifth, the ‘reopening of city parks and playgrounds, all of which now are closed to avoid desegregation’; and sixth, the ‘establishment of a biracial group to work out a timetable for desegregation of all Birmingham public schools.’ The white elite were to comply with all the conditions set forth by the movement before it would agree to call off the demonstrations.” (But for Birmingham, p.222)

Violence in the Movement

Connor was never going to back down without a fight and in the ensuing days, protests and arrests continued, and Palm Sunday (April 7) marked the day that twenty determined integrationists led by Martin Luther King’s brother A.D. King were promptly loaded into paddy wagons. But here for the first time, a glimpse of the local communities’ commitment to self-defense was revealed.

“The black spectators disapproved of the interruption of the march, and Connor called out the police dogs for crowd control. Leroy Allen, a non-movement nineteen-year-old black male, wrestled with one dog. ‘Get him, get him, get him!’ shouted black observers, who encouraged Allen to resist the dog. As the young man stood up, he reached into his pocket, but then policemen unleashed two more dogs on him. As a knife flashed, a German shepherd tore his arm and police knocked him to the ground and kicked him. Suddenly onlookers, officers, and other dogs rushed over the fallen man. More policemen moved in, swinging billy clubs to clear out the bystanders. Over the next fifteen minutes, snarling dogs dispersed the crowd. Police arrested seven spectators for disorderly conduct and loitering in addition to the nineteen activists already going to jail.” (But for Birmingham, p.226)

At this stage it was becoming clear to the experienced SCLC cadre that the mass local participation they had envisaged for their nonviolent campaign was not materializing, with the vast majority of the volunteers for arrest coming from the ranks of Shuttlesworth’s ACMHR. Eskew explained this apparent lack of support (or volunteers for arrest) in the following way: “Outside of the traditional Negro leadership class, which expressed opposition to the movement, and the unorganized onlookers who demonstrated their support by cheering as the marchers passed, the black community appeared too alienated and disinterested to get involved.” Yet an alternative explanation for the lack of involvement of local onlookers may simply have to do with their not being sold on the power of pacificism to impact upon the behaviour of their racist oppressors. Nevertheless, Connor was keen to avoid inflaming national opinion by exposing the violent modus operandi of his dictatorial regime, and so for the rest of the month Connor deliberately kept his police dogs (and Klan supporters) well away from the protests.

An ongoing game of cat-and-mouse politics played out between the authorities and the movement, and with the SCLC running low on funds because they were having to bail out so many protestors, Martin Luther King allowed himself to be arrested on Good Friday with the hope that more money would tumble from heaven (or at least from the wallets of his many well-to-do donors). With King still in prison, the following Sunday a march of 500 nonviolent demonstrators set off on a march only to be held up on route by Connor, resulting in the arrest of two dozen activists. Yet once again the crowd of ostensibly disinterested black onlookers (now around 2,000 strong) became disgruntled and “hurled rocks at the patrolmen” with the angry crowd only dispersing when the police arrested another three people.

The following Saturday, King was bailed out of prison, but his campaign of nonviolent resistance was stalling somewhat; the only ray of light being provided by the fact that increasing numbers of students were now beginning to join Shuttlesworth’s faithful in courting arrest. All the same, as Eskew puts it, “Demonstrations continued but seemed to lose their punch”: such that over the next week the number of volunteers prepared to go to jail remained just a “trickle, despite the best efforts of King and other movement leaders.” Making matters worse, the traditional black leadership class of the city continued to publicly criticize the oppositional tactics employed by King and Shuttleworth’s joint campaign.

Children Take to the Streets and More Violence Ensues

It was at this low-point that, largely in desperation, King’s movement turned towards children as a largely untapped source of volunteers in the ongoing war against segregation. Plans were thus laid to launch ‘D-Day’ on Thursday 2nd May with children providing the willing prison fodder for the movement. On this first day of major juvenile civil disobedience, students eagerly congregated in churches, where they received training in nonviolence, with groups of ten to fifty students setting out at noon to pre-designated targets all over town. ‘D-Day’ as we now know proved a tremendous success, and by the day’s end the number of arrests had topped one thousand, and the nonviolent movement had received a new injection of both volunteers and hope.

By day two of the children’s revolution, the number of students involved had swelled beyond anyone’s imagination, and with the jails already near capacity, “Connor decided to forcibly end the demonstrations rather than arrest the activists.” This Connor did by turning the fire brigades high pressure water hoses upon the children; and for “the next two hours the fire hoses repulsed nonviolent protesters and angry black bystanders.” “The unorganized African American spectators” once again…

“…participated in other [violent] ways that expressed the rebellion of black Birmingham. When the firemen increased the pressure to one hundred pounds so that the water sent students spinning down the street, dreadfully skinning exposed flesh, the heretofore cheering observers changed into a wrathful mob. A barrage of bricks and bottles descended on the firemen. As glass shattered nearby, Bull Connor deployed his squad of six German shepherds for crowd control.” (But for Birmingham, p.268)

By early afternoon, the civil rights movement leaders decided to call off the second day of renewed demonstrations amid warnings from the police that the mob had become dangerous.

Protests then resumed on Saturday morning with the police clearly struggling to keep pace with the student’s diversifying tactics. Not knowing what else he could to take the momentum out of this growing movement Connor now sought to contain the students within their churches, and the day ended in violence when “people on nearby rooftops rained down bricks and bottles” upon Connors violent discriminators. And once again, the nonviolent leaders were forced, with the aid of a policeman’s megaphone, to ask the riotous demonstrators to “please go home”.

With a victory now within sight, on Monday the students turned-out on the streets in even bigger numbers, such that by the end of the day city “officials had lost count” of the arrests “but they estimated the number to be around 2,425.” Then on Tuesday the protests grew larger still, with students literally engulfing the city and running rings around the police in the process. Resting from the day’s ferment, children crammed into the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church, where the leaders of the movement prepared to lead the students on another mass march into the business district. This decision to lead the students into another direct confrontation with Connor’s troops proved controversial and had been opposed by prominent civil rights activist, James Foreman, who to no avail “appealed to the ACMHR-SCLC leaders not to send the schoolchildren out to face the brutal repression prepared by Bull Connor.” Thus:

“By the time schoolchildren marched out of the sanctuary late Tuesday afternoon, skirmishes had broken out between municipal authorities and African American spectators. Water ‘skeeted’ over the heads of the crowd as black members hurled rocks and brickbats at the white men in uniform.” (But for Birmingham, p.280)


“State troopers arrived and squads of officers began to brutally beat back the riotous mob [of spectators]. Fifteen patrolmen scattered a group of stone throwers maneuvering near a row of tenements. Similar assaults would disperse the crowd by dusk.” (But for Birmingham, pp.281-2)

A Call for Peace from Upon High (and Victory)

By Wednesday, the increasingly unmanageable nature of the situation in Birmingham led to the nonviolent leaders – under immense pressure from both local black elites and from the Kennedy administration — to call for a moratorium on further protests. As we now know, not everyone was happy with this de-escalation, and:

“James Forman recognized the decision as ‘merely an agreement to negotiate with the city.’ He understood that ‘Burke Marshall [the government’s chief negotiator] and Bobby Kennedy had influenced Dr. King to call off the demonstrations because of the violent resistance actions. People had become too militant for the government’s liking and Dr. King’s image.’” (But for Birmingham, p.286)

Foreman’s anger was mirrored by that of Shuttlesworth, who, it turns out, had been unable to participate in the decision to call a moratorium because he had been hospitalized during the previous days protest. This bad mood was similarly matched by the unorganized blacks who had gathered to watch the ongoing actions that had now been postponed, and “a ‘sullen’ crowd of more than a thousand onlookers milled about the park.” One of King’s SCLC aides, Andrew Young, “referred to the near 90-degree temperature, the heated emotions of the African American spectators, and the cancellation of protests: ‘It’s too hot. We couldn’t have controlled this crowd.’”

With protests now called off, the next day King announced that a settlement had been negotiated with Birmingham’s white power structure. Eskew observes:

“During the press conference, King appeared ready to end the campaign by compromising further on the demands of the movement. He announced that the black community would accept desegregation of lunch counters and other public facilities at an unspecified ‘certain time’ in the future as well as the ‘gradual’ upgrading of Negro employees. On the arrested schoolchildren, King said: ‘The only thing that we can ask of the merchants is that they recommend in a very strong manner that the charges be dropped.’ On the catchall point of a biracial committee to discuss long- standing grievances in the black community, he said that the white power structure need only appoint the group but not concern itself with additional timetables for the implementation of school, park, and cinema desegregation, voter registration, the hiring of Negro policemen, and other demands.” (But for Birmingham, p.292)

In hindsight what is evident here is that while it was true that the “local movement had failed to achieve a single one of its original objectives”; nationally-speaking, King and the SCLC were still able to use this ‘victory’ to help build national support for their movement for nonviolent civil disobedience.

More Violence in Birmingham

But the battle wasn’t over yet, and on the night of King’s negotiated settlement thousands of Klansmen gathered on the outskirts of Birmingham to pledge vengeance upon all who had questioned the need for segregation. Dynamite was their weapon of choice and on the night of May 10 bombing season was relaunched, with two bomb attacks focused on taking Martin Luther King’s life. The furious and righteous response from the enraged local black community was immediate and the “first urban riot of the 1960s” ripped through streets that night — a riot which at its height included the participation of some 2,500 black people. Hundreds of state highway patrolmen were ordered onto the streets by Governor George Wallace and authorized “to shoot in self-defense”, and Bull Connor, roaming the streets in his white tank, was once again in his element.

President Kennedy, who was shocked by the “negative international press and the new black threat to white-owned property” that was threatened by such riots, was now even more determined to engineer a meaningful resolution to Birmingham’s unrest. Commenting on this sudden leap into action on the part of the government, Malcolm X correctly reminded America that:

“President Kennedy did not send troops to Alabama when dogs were biting black babies. He waited three weeks until the situation exploded. He then sent troops after the Negroes had demonstrated their ability to defend themselves.” [2]

But despite the Kennedy administrations best efforts to lobby Birmingham’s Big Mules to cede ground to the civil rights movement, many members of the local elite repudiated the first settlement with King. Arthur Wiebel, the president of U.S. Steel subsidiary TCI was one such mule who refused to back away the white supremacist power structure that had served him so well. Other local political leaders and the police were of a similar mind and following the so-called victory for the nonviolent movement they stepped-up their repression of the black community.

“For black people in Birmingham this force often meant ‘justifiable homicide.’ On June 28, a policeman killed Blaine Gordon Jr., a seventeen-year-old black male. On July 6, a detective shot, but did not kill, thirty-three-year-old Johnny Patterson, also black. On August 4, an officer killed James Scott Jr., age thirty-five, another black male. The ease with which policemen shot and killed black men reflected a pathology within Birmingham’s law enforcement that contributed to future racial crises. It also demonstrated how police brutality addressed the ambiguities of the negotiated accord. While indigenous black leaders renewed local demands for Negro policemen in an effort to gain civil service jobs and lessen legal violence, the national movement spent the summer absorbing the popular response to and recuperating from the spring demonstrations.” (But for Birmingham, p.314)

As one might have expected, the increase in white violence and resumption of dynamiting was followed by further black riots; and on September 15, Dynamite Bob upped the ante again when he murdered four young black girls by bombing Sixteenth Street Baptist Church. This latest act of cold blooded murder triggered yet another riot on the part of the local black community, which led to further retaliations from the white community, with the police responding by shooting a sixteen-year-old black boy in the back, and a white teenager taking his own revenge by murdering a thirteen-year-old black child. “The police brutality and senseless murder by young racial extremists reflected a sick desire within the white community to defend racial norms by any means necessary.” Under these dire circumstances black self-defense now became systematized as “terrorized black families living on Dynamite Hill… formed an extralegal security force to protect themselves.”

With such violence being reasserted over the black population of Birmingham it didn’t take long for Martin Luther King to return, whereupon he threatened further protests if the police force did not begin to integrate. But, in this instance King’s bark proved worse than his bite and he quickly backed down from these initial demands, partly because everyone realized that “Renewed protests would entail an admission that the spring campaign had been less than successful.” Clearly events in Birmingham were a lot more complicated that the simplistic and moralistic success story that was (and still is) being told to the world.

Sadly, the repressive actions of local elites meant that meaningful change occurred very slowly in Birmingham during the 1960s. This is despite the fact that the campaign’s much-vaunted victory had helped to catalyse further nonviolent movements across the country. What however was clear to anyone who paid the slightest attention to what had happened in Birmingham was the critical role that violent disobedience had fulfilled in helping push the slow wheels of justice along. This point was recognized by Eskew who concluded his study of the Birmingham Campaign by noting that: “Not until rioting provoked by an egregious example of police brutality in 1969 did the white power structure consciously create a biracial forum that worked: the Community Affairs Committee of Operation New Birmingham.” As he emphasized:

“The shooting of a robbery suspect in July 1967 triggered a riot. The assassination of Martin Luther King in 1968 saw Birmingham once more in flames. The violent beating of a black man and two black women during an arrest in March 1969 led to riots and demonstrations that resulted in the first genuine effort at biracial communication.” (But for Birmingham, p.328)

The Language of the Unheard

To his immense credit, Martin Luther King, unlike many other political leaders of his era, actively sought to understand the political causes of the black riots that became increasingly common as the sixties progressed. In a television interview aired by CBS in September 1966 King made the case that “a riot is the language of the unheard”; explaining that “the cry of Black Power is at bottom a reaction to the reluctance of White Power to make the kind of changes necessary to make justice a reality for the Negro.”

As an example of the living dialectics of social change, it appears that King’s continual exposure to the everyday actions of ordinary people’s ongoing fight for justice, served to push him ever leftwards towards working-class politics. These changes in his outlook and political orientation accordingly brought King into direct confrontation with the accommodationist tactics favoured by many of his liberal peers. An evolving conflict that was particularly evident in August 1965, when at the SCLC’s national convention King tried and failed to convince other leaders of the SCLC that their organization should oppose the Vietnam War. [3]

Facing stifling resistance to his developing socialist consciousness from within the leadership ranks of the civil rights movement, in February 1967 King finally broke with the pro-Democrat, pro-War consensus of the SCLC when he made his first public speech against the War. The following month King then found himself in the position of leading an anti-war demonstration in Chicago; and most memorably, on April 4 King delivered his “Beyond Vietnam” speech to a rapt audience at the Riverside Church in New York wherein he called for the end of the “giant triplets of racism, materialism, and militarism”. As Michael Honey highlighted in his book, Going Down Jericho Road: The Memphis Strike, Martin Luther King’s Last Campaign (Norton, 2008):

“In delivering this sharp critique, King sacrificed his ties to the American political establishment and to the most powerful leader in American government. Two weeks after his Riverside Church speech, he told the press: ‘We seek to defeat Lyndon Johnson and his war.’ Johnson, for his part, raged at King, and [FBI Director J. Edgar] Hoover told him that King had a ‘propaganda line’ similar to the Communist Party. When King spoke at a mass antiwar rally on April 15 in New York, Hoover stepped up his efforts to connect King to ‘Communist Influence in Racial Matters,’ with total support from the president.” (p.94)

Fighting for Working-Class Unity

In 1967 King certainly knew what he was doing when he broke with the Democratic Establishment on the issue of the Vietnam War, but ultimately, he felt that he had no other alternative if the civil rights movement was serious about ending black oppression. In fact, in taking this bold stance King was now far more in tune with the tempo of working-class struggle than many of his so-called left-wing advisors. For instance, one of King’s closest friends on the left, Stanley Levison, had warned King against opposing the war precisely because it would endanger the SCLC’s liberal donor base; while King’s pacifist advisor, Bayard Rustin, went so far as publicly rebuking King in the press for having the audacity to oppose the imperial bloodbath in Vietnam.

Vocal opposition to the Vietnam War likewise brought King into direct confrontation with the pro-war leadership of the AFL-CIO, and in November 1967 King’s ongoing peace activism led to him addressing the National Labor Assembly for Peace (which was a national conference of trade unionists opposed to the war). Here fellow conference speaker, UAW leader Victor Reuther, laid bare what was at stake in the trade union movement when he “angrily denounced the AFL-CIO position on the war” and “used the occasion to rail against the labor-CIA nexus and blast what he termed the ‘fascist corporate unions’ sponsored worldwide by the AFL-CIO.” [4] Nevertheless, despite the reactionary leadership of the AFL-CIO, pacifists like Rustin continued to insist that King should steer clear of conflict with the union bureaucracy and should avoid militant actions like those incorporated within King’s new Poor People’s Campaign: Rustin’s accommodationist preference being that King must simply come to peace with conservative trade union leaders at the AFL-CIO. [5]

King however was a principled activist who, now more than ever, was determined to work in a genuine alliance with the working poor. Thus, in a speech to the Hospital Workers Union Local 1199 that he delivered in New York City on March 10, 1968, King spoke of how there was “socialism for the rich” but only “rugged individualism for the poor”. With the AFL-CIO misleadership weighing heavily on his mind King said:

“There are times, and I must confess it very honestly as many of us have to confess it as we look at contemporary developments, that I’m often disenchanted with some segments of the power structure of the labor movement. But in these moments of disenchantment, I begin to think of unions like Local 1199 and it gives me renewed courage and vigor to carry on … and the feeling that there are some unions left that will always maintain the radiant and vibrant idealism that brought the labor movement into being. And I would suggest that if all of labor would emulate what you have been doing over the years, our nation would be closer to victory in the fight to eliminate poverty and injustice.”

As part of his growing socialist alignment, King was soon to find himself in Memphis, Tennessee, supporting 1,300 striking sanitation workers. The wildcat strike by bin workers had been launched on February 11, shortly after two garbage collectors, Echol Cole and Robert Walker, had been crushed to death by a malfunctioning truck. Needless to say, the strike was viciously opposed by the city’s racist elite. [6] And on March 18, thirty-four days into the strike, King found himself addressing a 15,000 strong crowd at the Bishop Charles Mason Temple wherein, to rapturous applause, he called for “general work stoppage in the city of Memphis!”

Sadly, King’s proposed general strike never came to pass, and even more tragically, King was assassinated in Memphis on April 4, 1968. Thus in lieu of a potential general strike, in the wake of King’s slaughter violent black riots rocked the nation. And yet despite all this chaos, the Memphis City Mayor (a member of the Democratic Party) was adamant that he had a mandate to crush the striking sanitation workers and their union. President Johnson however recognized the dangers posed by the Mayor’s arrogance and took matters into his own hands when – in the interest of quelling the national uprisings, not promoting justice – the President forced the deluded City Mayor to settle the dispute. But even then, the Mayor still managed to ensure that the settlement would be born on the backs of Memphis’ poor (both black and white), which he did through the introduction of a new garbage tax. [7]

So, in the present day, what should we as anti-racist activists make of Martin Luther King’s legacy of fighting segregation?

King may now be long departed, and racism and inequality may still be rife in America, but just as King continually learned from the movements that he was involved in during his short life, it is critical that we too learn the lessons from King’s political strategizing. This means approaching this issue with a degree of candid honesty that will never be found in any beatified corporate-sanctioned histories of the civil rights movement.

First, it is important to acknowledge that a strictly nonviolent civil rights movement never existed: black self-defense had always played a critical part in the long battle against white supremacy, and its role must be recognized. Second, we must celebrate the fact that King came to understand that it is the organized working-class itself that is the determinant factor in leading successful fights against injustice. And last, but not least, we must appreciate that there are no limits to the violence that capitalism will inflict upon the working-class in order to keep us divided. Hence this is why we must continue to fight all forms of injustice where-ever they may rear their ugly head, so that we might be able to build the type of mass struggles that can inaugurate a new socialist society that places the needs of all humans before the needs of profit. As King eloquently put it: “as long as America postpones justice, we stand in the position of having these recurrences of violence and riots over and over again.” Capitalism is the problem we all face, which is why we must continue to fight to end all recurrences of violence and riots by uprooting the institutionalization of injustice by fighting to replace capitalism with a real socialist alternative.

Michael Barker is the author of Under the Mask of Philanthropy (2017).


[1] Raymond Arsenault, Freedom Riders: 1961 and the Struggle for Racial Justice (Pivotal Moments in American History) (Oxford University Press, 2007), pp.81-2. At the NAACP’s annual convention, held in July 1959, Robert Williams was suspended from their membership role because of his militant approach to organising. As Charles Cobb notes: “whatever the basis of the NAACP’s objection to Williams, it does not seem to have had anything to do with his use of guns. In 1959, at the very convention that suspended Williams from the NAACP, the organization passed a resolution affirming the right of self-defense.” Cobb, This Nonviolent Stuff’ll Get You Killed: How Guns Made the Civil Rights Movement (Basic Books, 2014), p.113.

[2] Nick Bryant supports this argument in The Bystander: John F. Kennedy and the Struggle for Black Equality (Basic Books, 2006), a book which is based on transcripts of the Kennedy brothers’ conversations in the White House vis-à-vis the developments in Birmingham. Some of these issues are covered in August Nimtz’s article “Violence and/or nonviolence in the success of the Civil Rights Movement: the Malcolm X–Martin Luther King, Jr. nexus,” New Political Science, 38(1), 2016. For a critical discussion of the liberal elite’s fixation upon voter registration drives, see Evan Faulkenbury’s Poll Power: The Voter Education Project and the Movement for the Ballot in the American South (University of North Carolina Press, 2019).

[3] Adam Fairclough, “Martin Luther King, Jr. and the War in Vietnam,” Phylon, 45(1), 1984, pp.24-5.

[4] Edmund Wehrle, Between a River and a Mountain: The AFL-CIO and the Vietnam War (University of Michigan Press, 2005), p.123.

[5] Bayard Rustin and A. Philip Randolph were also the leading proponents of the 1966 “Freedom Budget” which was devised with the support of the AFL-CIO’s ‘socialist’ advisors, like Max Shachtman. “Its leaders for the most part — with the important exception of Martin Luther King — wanted to shift the Freedom Movement to mainstream tactics and away from mass street protests.” Uncritical support for the Freedom Budget also came from the Communist Party. For an example of the type of uncritical engagement with the political objectives of the Freedom Budget, see Paul Le Blanc’s “Martin Luther King: Christian Core, Socialist Bedrock,” Against the Current, 16, 2002.

[6] On March 28, AFL-CIO President George Meany had been persuaded to support the strike by making a $20,000 donation from the AFL-CIO coffers, but more importantly “he sent out a letter to unions across the country asking them also to donate.” Meany’s donation however remained a private affair until King’s assassination, whereupon Meany felt able to publicly promote his backing of the Memphis strike. Honey, Going Down Jericho Road, p.391, p.465.

[7] “To sustain the wage increases, the city would propose a garbage tax that most affected poorer whites and blacks, and it would cause residents to blame the union rather than the mayor for the costs of a settlement.” For an overview of the Memphis strike, watch the 1994 documentary film At the River I Stand.


Michael Barker is the author of Under the Mask of Philanthropy (2017).