As an outgrowth of the Montgomery bus boycott, protest movements emerged in numerous
cities throughout the South. The 1963 campaign in Birmingham, Alabama, the largest
industrial city in the South, generated national publicity and federal action due to the
particularly violent response of segregationists. According to Martin Luther King, Jr., the
Southern Christian Leadership Conference's (SCLC) nonviolent direct action could not have
been staged in a more appropriate place, in the "belly of the beast." Along with the March on
Washington for Jobs and Freedom in the summer of 1963, the Birmingham campaign created
an urgency that led to the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
In the spring of 1956, Reverend Fred Shuttlesworth organized the Alabama Christian
Movement for Human Rights (ACMHR), an organization focused on direct action and
committed to ending segregation in Birmingham. In May 1962, SCLC leaders, including King,
joined Shuttlesworth and the ACMHR in a massive direct action campaign to attack the city’s
segregation system. Like Shuttlesworth, they believed that while a campaign in Birmingham
would surely be the toughest fight of the civil rights movement to date, if successful, it would
have implications for segregation all over the nation. "Our goal in Birmingham was larger than
ending segregation in one Southern city," SNCC chairman John Lewis noted. "It was our
hope that our efforts in Birmingham would dramatize the fight and determination of African-
American citizens in the Southern states and that we would force the Kennedy administration
to draft and push through Congress a comprehensive Civil Rights Act, outlawing segregation
and racial discrimination in public accommodations, employment and education."
The campaign's strategy was to put economic pressure on Birmingham's merchants, so
organizers scheduled the protests to begin around the Easter season, the second biggest
shopping period of the year. However, a mayoral election was to be held in Birmingham on 5
March. All the leading candidates were segregationists, but candidate Eugene "Bull" Connor,
also Birmingham's commissioner of public safety, was considered much more militant.
Because SCLC did not want to be used as a political tool to drive white voters to Connor, they
postponed the campaign until two weeks after the election. The close election resulted in a
runoff on 2 April 1963 in which Albert Boutwell defeated Connor. Despite the results of the
runoff, the city commissioners, including Connor, refused to vacate their city hall offices,
arguing that they could not be legally removed from office until 1965. When SCLC finally
launched the campaign in early April, Birmingham was operating under two governments.
The campaign began with a series of mass meetings and direct actions. King spoke on the
philosophy of nonviolence and its methods, and at the end of the meetings, extended an
appeal to volunteers to serve in the nonviolent resistance. SCLC actions began with lunch
counter sit-ins, marches on City Hall, and a boycott of downtown merchants. With the number
of volunteers increasing daily, actions soon expanded to knee-ins at churches, sit-ins at the
library, and a march on the county building to mark the opening of a voter registration drive.
On 10 April, the city government obtained a court injunction directing an end to all protests.
King and the SCLC decided that the time had come to counter the city's legal maneuvering
with action; and after two days of heavy debate, they decided to disobey the court order. King
declared, "We cannot in all good conscience obey such an injunction which is an unjust,
undemocratic and unconstitutional misuse of the legal process."
SCLC’s plans to submit to arrests were threatened, however, by insufficient funds to cover
bail expenses. SCLC had used up all of the money they had available for cash bonds and had
an ongoing responsibility to demonstrators already arrested and jailed. Fifty more
demonstrators were scheduled to be arrested with Ralph Abernathy and King, and the SCLC
could not guarantee their eventual release. King contemplated whether he should go to jail
because, given the lack of funds, his services as a fundraiser were so desperately needed.
But he worried that his failure to submit to arrests would undermine the credibility of the
movement, criticism he had faced during the Albany Movement. After some thought, King
concluded that he had to be willing to go to jail in Birmingham. "Friends," King said, "I've
made my decision. I have to make a faith act. I don't know what will happen or what the
outcome will be. I don't know where the money will come from."
On 12 April, King was arrested in Birmingham after violating the state circuit court injunction
against protests. He was kept in solitary confinement and was al lowed minimal direct contact.
It was at this time that King penned his famous Letter from Birmingham Jail on the margins of
the Birmingham News.
King's request to call his wife, Coretta Scott King, who was at home in Atlanta recovering from
the birth of their fourth child, was denied. With King in solitary confinement, Coretta feared for
his safety. Her telephone conversations with Attorney General Robert Kennedy and President
John Kennedy led to Birmingham officials permitting King to call home. While King remained
in jail, Harry Belafonte helped raise the necessary funds to continue the campaign, donating
$50,000 to the movement. King was released on 19 April 1963.
In order to maintain pressure, SCLC organizers decided to appeal to high school students for
the next wave of demonstrations. They hoped such dramatic action would elicit national
attention and secure federal civil rights legislation. They viewed high school students as an
untapped source of freedom fighters who did not have the jobs and responsibilities of older
On 2 May 1963, more than a thousand black youth descended upon Birmingham. Close to
900 students were arrested, but a reserve army of nearly 2500 demonstrated the following
day. Bull Connor, who had up until this point "restrained" from violence against protesters,
ordered firemen to use their hoses on the protesters and on lookers. As the youth fled from
the power of the hoses, Connor directed officers and their dogs to pursue them. John Lewis
noted the power of this incident: "We didn't fully comprehend at first what was happening. We
were witnessing police violence and brutality Birmingham-style: unfortunately for Bull Connor,
so was the rest of the world." As the clashes between nonviolent protesters and police made
headlines across the country—with pictures of policemen bending over women with raised
clubs, children marching up to the aggressive police dogs, and pressure hoses sweeping
bodies into the streets—the movement reached a new level of visibility.
At the same time, SCLC leaders became aware that the white business structure was
weakening under the adverse publicity, the pressure of the boycott, and the unexpected fall-
off of white business. While the pressure on Birmingham's business community was
increasing, some business owners were still reluctant to negotiate with SCLC leadership.
However, with national pressure on the White House mounting, the administration intervened.
President Kennedy sent Burke Marshall, his chief civil rights assistant, to facilitate
negotiations between the SCLC and representatives of Birmingham's business community.
On Friday, 10 May, an agreement between the Senior Citizens Council and SCLC leadership
was announced. It contained pledges for the desegregation of public accommodations, a
committee to ensure nondiscriminatory hiring practices in Birmingham, cooperation in
releasing jailed protesters, and public communications between black and white leaders to
prevent further demonstrations.
Announcement of the agreement was met with violent retaliation. The home of the Reverend
A. D. King, Martin Luther King's brother, was bombed; and a bomb was planted near the
Gaston Motel, where King and SCLC leaders were staying. President Kennedy responded by
ordering 3,000 federal troops into position near Birmingham and made preparations to
federalize the Alabama National Guard. Four months later, on 15 September, Ku Klux Klan
members bombed the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, killing four young girls.
King delivered the eulogy at the funerals of Addie Mae Collins, Carol Denise McNair, and
Cynthia Diane Wesley.
The momentum generated by the Birmingham struggle culminated on 28 August 1963 when
the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom attracted more than 200,000 demonstrators
to the Lincoln Memorial. Organized by A. Philip Randolph and Bayard Rustin, the march was
supported by all major civil rights organizations as well as many labor and religious groups. It
was on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial that King delivered his famous "I Have a Dream"
speech. After the march, King and other civil rights leaders met with President Kennedy at the
White House. The Birmingham Campaign and the March on Washington paved the way for
the passage of the most significant civil rights legislation of the 1960s: the Civil Rights Act
(1964) and the Voting Rights Act (1965).
As 1963 began, Martin Luther King, Jr., and the SCLC were coming off a campaign in Albany,
Georgia, which the New York Herald Tribune called "one of the most stunning defeats of
King's career." SCLC had spent over a year in Albany attempting to integrate the city's public
facilities. Although the president of the Albany Movement, Dr. William Anderson, said that the
campaign was "an overwhelming success, in that there was a change in the attitude of the
people involved," King felt that, "we got nothing." The schools remained segregated; the city
parks were closed to avoid integration; the libraries were integrated, but only after all the
chairs were removed. SCLC official Andrew Young remembered King as being "very
depressed."  He was looking to start another campaign, and he badly needed a victory.
Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth of Birmingham invited King and the SCLC to Birmingham,
nicknamed "Bombingham" because it was the site of eighteen unsolved bombings in black
neighborhoods over a six-year span and of the vicious mob attack on the Freedom Riders on
Mother's Day 1961. In 1963, the city government was undergoing a major change. Voters
decided to rid the city of the three-man city commission and instead elect a mayor, mostly to
force Bull Connor, commissioner of public safety and the man largely responsible for the
attack on the Freedom Riders, to step down. Connor ran for mayor but the voters elected the
more moderate Albert Boutwell instead. The city commission, however, refused to step down,
leaving Birmingham with two city governments until the courts decided which was the
In the midst of this change, SCLC launched "Project C" (for Confrontation). On "B Day" (for
Birmingham), April 3, 1963, SCLC staged sit-ins and released a "Birmingham Manifesto,"
which was largely ignored, to reporters. made much of an impact.
On April 6, police arrested 45 protesters marching from Sixteenth Street Baptist Church to city
hall. The next day, Palm Sunday, more people were arrested. In addition, two police dogs
attacked nineteen-year-old protester Leroy Allen as a large crowd looked on. In response to
the protests, Judge W.A. Jenkins, Jr., issued an order preventing 133 of the city's civil rights
leaders, including King, his friend and fellow SCLC leader Ralph Abernathy, and
Shuttlesworth from organizing demonstrations. But the Project C plan called for King to be
arrested on Good Friday, April 12. After a few hours of debate, King told his staff, "Look, I
don't know what to do. I just know that something has got to change in Birmingham. I don't
know whether I can raise money to get people out of jail. I do know that I can go into jail with
them."  King was arrested and put in solitary confinement. There, he read an ad in the
Birmingham News, taken out by local white ministers, that called him a troublemaker. He
responded to the ad, writing in the margins of the newspaper and on toilet paper. His
response was eventually published as his "Letter from Birmingham Jail":
While confined here in the Birmingham City Jail, I came across your recent statement calling
our present activities "unwise and untimely" . . . . Frankly I have never yet engaged in a direct
action movement that was "well timed," according to the timetable of those who have not
suffered unduly from the disease of segregation. For years now I have heard the word "Wait!"
It rings in the ear of every Negro with a piercing familiarity. This "wait" has almost always
meant "never." 
King was released on April 20. Meanwhile, SCLC organizers started to plan "D Day." Unlike
the other demonstrations, all of the D Day demonstrators would be children. James Bevel
explained why the SCLC turned to children as demonstrators:
Most adults have bills to pay -- house notes, rents, car notes, utility bills -- but the young
people . . . are not hooked with all those responsibilities. A boy from high school has the same
effect in terms of being in jail, in terms of putting pressure on the city, as his father, and yet
there's no economic threat to the family, because the father is still on the job." 
On May 2, children, ranging in age from six to eighteen, gathered in Kelly Ingram Park, across
the street from Sixteenth Street Baptist Church. Around 1:00, fifty teenagers left the church
and headed for downtown, singing "We Shall Overcome." They were arrested and placed in
police vans. Another group left the church, and they were also put in vans. Another group left,
and another. Soon the police began stuffing the protesters in school buses because there
were no more vans. Three hours later, there were 959 children in jail. The jails were
The next day, over a thousand more children stayed out of school and went to Kelly Ingram
Park. Bull Connor was determined not to let them get downtown, but he had no space left in
his jails. He brought firefighters out and ordered them to turn hoses on the children. Most ran
away, but one group refused to budge. The firefighters turned even more powerful hoses on
them, hoses that shot streams of water strong enough to break bones. The force of the water
rolled the protesters down the street. In addition, Connor had mobilized K-9 forces, who
attacked protesters trying to enter the church. Pictures of the confrontation between the
children and the police shocked the nation. The entire country was watching Birmingham.
The demonstrations escalated. Because the jails were filled, the police did not know what to
do. Finally, the Birmingham business community, fearing damage to downtown stores, agreed
to integrate lunch counters and hire more blacks, over the objections of city officials. King had
gotten his much-needed victory.