I wrote a post last year about the anniversary of the March on Selma and, in particular, how difficult I found it to see and hear how cops treated their fellow citizens in that place and time. Today, I’m again confronted with the same issue in examining the history of the civil rights movement in Birmingham, Alabama.
The 1960s began a growing protest culture in the US, first ushered in by the Woolworth’s lunch counter sit-ins that started in February 1960. By the spring of 1963, demonstrations were taking place in numerous Southern towns and cities to bring attention to the plight of black Americans and their unequal access to education, housing, and employment. The bastion of the segregated South remained Birmingham, a city whose population had directed tremendous violence toward reformers; more than 50 black homes and institutions were bombed after WWII. With no apparent effect on their government and local society, area civil rights leaders enlisted Martin Luther King Jr’s help. While serving a subsequent nine-day jail sentence in April for violating a ban on demonstrations, Dr. King composed his “Letter from Birmingham,” regarded as one of his most eloquent and effective pleas for racial equality. His letter laid out various atrocities black southerners endured, including police brutality and daily, recurring humiliations of explaining segregation to their children who longed to enter public swimming pools and amusement parks.
The following month, King decided to include black schoolchildren into the Birmingham public protests. The local police chief, Eugene “Bull” Connor, ordered an unrestrained police force on thousands of young marchers, and the resulting televised images brought that local reality into living rooms everywhere. Americans watched in horror as cops used nightsticks, clubs, high-pressure fire hoses, and attack dogs against children and teens. The broadcasts shocked the conscience of the nation, turned the Birmingham campaign into a civil rights triumph, and led President Kennedy to endorse the movement’s goals of racial and social equality.
Despite the success and sacrifices of that May, demonstrations escalated. Within the span of one week in June, cops arrested more than 15,000 demonstrators in 186 municipalities. A bomb concealed inside a black Baptist church in Birmingham killed four young girls that August. The last of those domestic terrorists wasn’t convicted until 2002.
The atrocities in Birmingham weren’t isolated to that city, but the relatively accepted violence there brought its population, civic leadership, and police force into greater conflict. Thanks to the consumerism and prosperity that had swept much of the nation during the previous postwar years, televised coverage of the Birmingham police actions compelled white Americans, including cops and firemen, to decide whether they had more in common with the protestors demanding basic rights and freedoms or the monsters attacking them for doing so.
There are moments in our nation’s history, and within that of our collective police forces, that break my heart. I’m filled with sorrow that men who swore an oath to uphold the laws and defend the Constitution abused their authority; however, I’m simultaneously grateful that I never witnessed or heard of such action among my modern comrades. Cops are people, so I would be ignorant or irrational to pretend such prejudice doesn’t exist in a single first responder. I can say, however, with absolute candor that my experience has convinced me they’re an isolated and lonely few, fearful of letting slip their hateful ideology.