Key Moments in the Fight for Civil Rights

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Spring, 1963 – Project “C” in Birmingham

Birmingham, the largest city in Alabama, is notorious for its segregation and racial hatred, gaining the nickname “Bombingham” for the many violent acts against black citizens. Governor George Wallace declares, “segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever,” in January 1963.

Activists in Birmingham launch Project “C” — for “confrontation.” Although the city government is in a state of confusion following a disputed election, the segregationist commissioner of public safety, Bull Connor, takes charge. When Martin Luther King is arrested, he writes his famous “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” which justifies the movement’s work. In early May, activists begin recruiting children to march. By the end of the first day, 700 have been arrested. On May 3rd, 1,000 more children show up to peacefully protest, and Connor turns high-pressure fire hoses and police dogs on them, creating some of the most indelibly violent images to date. Horrified Americans see it all on the news. After five days, 2,500 protesters fill the jails, 2,000 of them children.

Birmingham business leaders make a deal with protesters after 38 days of confrontation. The city promises to desegregate public facilities and begin an employment program for black people downtown. In response, George Wallace says the deal was not made by the legitimate leaders of Birmingham, and the Klan bombs King’s hotel. Though King has already left town, a crowd gathers, and are beaten by state police with clubs and rifles. A riot follows, and black protests spread to other cities, showing that the non-violent approach has limits.

In September of that year, the Ku Klux Klan bombs the 16th Street Baptist Church on a Sunday morning. Fifteen people are injured and four young girls are killed, filling many in the movement with rage. It will be 14 years before the first of three men, Robert Chambliss, is brought to justice in 1977; his companions Thomas Blanton, Jr. and Bobby Lee Cherry will not be convicted until 2001 and 2002, respectively.

Much of this text is excerpted, with permission, from the website for the American Experience series Eyes on the Prize. Read more about these events and others on that site.

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