Photo credits: HarperOne
During a march against segregation on April 12, 1963, in Birmingham, Alabama, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and at least 55 people, virtually all of whom were Black, were arrested for “parading without a permit.”
Hundreds of people lined the streets to support Dr. King, Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth, and Rev. Ralph Abernathy as they marched nonviolently into the downtown area. The peaceful marchers, who set out from Sixth Avenue Zion Hill Church (in a primarily Black area on their way to City Hall) were greeted by a first police roadblock and diverted to another path. Commissioner Eugene “Bull” Connor gave the cops specific directions as the demonstrators approached a second police barricade: “Stop them… Allow them to go no farther!”
Connor was a well-known segregationist who had links to the Ku Klux Klan. Several motorcycle patrolmen approached the assembly of peaceful protestors and started making violent mass arrests at his order. Dr. King and Rev. Abernathy were detained first, and then the marchers were grabbed and beaten. That day, at least 54 additional persons, including Rev. Shuttlesworth, were detained.
The detained protesters were accused of breaking a Birmingham order prohibiting “race demonstrations.” City authorities had won the injunction from a circuit court earlier that week, alleging that civil rights marches drew violence, despite the fact that the protests were usually clearly nonviolent, and the violence that did occur was often used by police against the protesting activists. The entire world witnessed the police’s brutal treatment of nonviolent activists during the 1963 Birmingham campaign to challenge racial segregation through newspaper photographs and televised footage depicting demonstrators being bitten by dogs, beaten by officers, and slammed into walls by fire hoses.
Following their arrest, Dr. King and others were imprisoned in the Birmingham Jail for many days as sympathizers labored to gather money for bail. Dr. King wrote his famous ‘Letter from a Birmingham Jail’ around this period in response to a joint letter published in the local newspaper by numerous white clergymen criticizing the march and civil rights activists’ tactics.
On April 20, 1963, Dr. King was freed on bail, yet he continued to work as a civil rights leader until his assassination five years later.
Most white Americans, particularly in the South, backed segregation and opposed civil rights agitation led by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and others. As civil rights activists started to achieve significant legal and legislative wins, white Americans adopted a “massive opposition” strategy, using a variety of methods and weaponry to discourage activity and stifle progress. Some of these practices predicted the present period of mass imprisonment, such as criminalizing, detaining, and imprisoning nonviolent activists.
Other techniques, such as bombing and killing civil rights activists, employed fatal violence to uphold white dominance, just as huge, raging white mobs used lynching during the earlier racial terror periods.