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Fifty years ago this week the city of Birmingham, Alabama, turned the dogs on black children marching for civil rights, initiating eight days that brought the intensifying struggle into living rooms across the nation and tore at America’s conscience.

From May 2 to May 10, 1963, a shocked nation bore witness as police, led by an unapologetic racist city official, Eugene “Bull” Connor, aimed high-powered hoses and set snarling dogs on black Americans who wanted just one thing — to be treated the same as white Americans.

In the weeks prior to May 2, determined to desegregate what was considered the most segregated city in the United States, Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference had staged a series of business boycotts in Birmingham that resulted in numerous arrests.

Then King launched the final, and most controversial, phase of what he called Project C (for “confrontation”): the Children’s Crusade, a non-violent protest march of black children ranging in age from six to 18. The idea had come from Rev. James Bevel, a Birmingham minister, who suggested the children would march to downtown Birmingham and request to speak to the city’s mayor, Arthur Haynes.

While King faced criticism —most notably from Malcolm X, who said that “real men don’t put their children on the firing line”— for exposing children to potential violence, King maintained that the demonstration would allow children to develop “a sense of their own stake in freedom.”

On the morning of May 2, more than a thousand African American students skipped their classes and gathered at Sixth Street Baptist Church to march to downtown Birmingham. As they approached police lines, hundreds were arrested and carried off to jail in paddy wagons and school buses. When hundreds more young people gathered the following day for another march, Commissioner of Public Safety “Bull” Connor directed the local police and fire departments to use force to halt the demonstration. Images of children being blasted by high-pressure fire hoses, clubbed by police officers, and attacked by police dogs were captured by cameras from every television network and led that evening’s news broadcasts.
Across America viewers were outraged by the sickening spectacle.
Birmingham’s business leaders quickly realized they were in the midst of a public relations disaster. Over the few next days, as Connor’s cops continued to crack down on the demonstrators, and after the intervention of the U.S. Department of Justice, they quietly capitulated and negotiated a settlement that was stunning for its time. Birmingham's business leaders agreed to desegregate downtown stores, lunch counters and fitting rooms. They agreed to remove “Whites Only” signs from drinking fountains and restrooms. King declared it a “truly a moment of great victory.”

A week and a half later, the Birmingham board of education announced that all students who participated in the demonstrations would be either suspended or expelled. The Southern Christian Leadership Conference and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People immediately took the issue to the local federal district court, where the judge upheld the ruling. On May 22, the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals reversed the decision and condemned the Birmingham Board of Education for its actions.

There would be more violence in Birmingham. That September, four young black girls would be killed when a bomb ripped apart the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church.

But “Bull” Connor’s heavy-handed tactics in front of the national news media – 50 years ago this week – thrust the civil rights movement into the forefront of America’s consciousness and became a catalyst for social change that helped pave the way for passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

Originally posted to Richard Riis on Thu May 02, 2013 at 07:19 AM PDT.

Also republished by History for Kossacks and Invisible People.

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