Freedom: A History of US

Webisode 14. Segment 6
Freedom Has Come To Birmingham

It is hot, very hot, in the summer of 1962 in Birmingham, Alabama See It Now - Birmingham, Alabama. But that doesn't seem to make any difference to the city's white leaders. They close all of Birmingham's public recreational facilities because they don't want to see them integrated. No one in Birmingham can enter a park or swim in the pools.

Birmingham, Alabama's largest city, has plenty of moderate, clear-headed citizens, but the South's moderates are used to keeping quiet. Perhaps they fear the violence of the Ku Klux Klan. The Klan has helped elect Eugene "Bull" Connor as Birmingham's police chief. Connor is about as big a bully as the South has ever produced. Besides that, he is a racist. Birmingham's black citizens march, protest, and demonstrate. They want the same rights as everyone else. They want to be able to eat in any restaurant See It Now - Birmingham Protest, go to any school. They want to vote. They want an end to segregation. Those are all their civil rights. They demonstrate peacefully. Bull Connor sends attack dogs See It Now - Birmingham Violence. He says, Hear It Now - "Bull" Connor "All you gotta do is tell them you're going to bring the dogs. Look at 'em run. I want to see the dogs work."

In April, 1963 Martin Luther King, Jr., heads to Birmingham to join the marchers. He ends up in jail with many of them See It Now - Martin Luther King Arrested in Birmingham. A southern jail is not a good place to be for a civil rights leader. Then King writes a letter from the Birmingham jail to explain the reasons behind the civil rights movement. He doesn't have any writing paper so he writes on the margins of a newspaper and on toilet paper.

King is frustrated not because he is behind bars See It Now - Martin Luther King in Jail, but because he is so tired of being told to be patient, and to wait for change to come. He says: "When you have seen vicious mobs lynch your mothers and fathers at will and drown your sisters and brothers at whim; when you have seen hate-filled policemen curse, kick, and even kill your black brothers and sisters; when you see the vast majority of your twenty million Negro brothers smothering in an airtight cage of poverty in the midst of an affluent society ... when you are humiliated day in and day out by nagging signs reading "white" and "colored"; when your first name becomes "nigger," your middle name becomes "boy" (however old you are) ... then you will understand why we find it difficult to wait...." His letter is a passionate indictment of American society for permitting racism to continue. But it ends in hope: "I have no despair about the future.... We will reach the goal of freedom in Birmingham and all over the nation because the goal of America is freedom Check The Source - "Letter from a Birmingham Jail"."

Demonstrators are by now being sent to jail in droves, but no one is doing anything about it See It Now - Woman Arrested. Something dramatic is needed to capture the nation's attention. Thousands of new demonstrators might do it. But where are the thousands who can march and not worry about losing their jobs? Suddenly it becomes obvious—they are in the schools! The Rev. James Bevel See It Now - James Bevel was with the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. He writes: "We started organizing the prom queens of the high schools, the basketball stars, the football stars."

Those student leaders get others interested. Across the South, black and white students begin taking part in sit-ins at lunch counters. Once again, peaceful demonstrations are met with violence. In Birmingham, boys and girls from the high schools, junior highs, and elementary schools want to march See It Now - Students March. Workshops are held to help them overcome their fears and know how to think on their feet. When some 600 children march out of church singing, Bull Connor arrests them all. The next day another 1,000 children begin a march. One of them is a girl named Patricia King. She writes: Hear It Now - Patricia King "Some of the times that we marched, people would be out there and they would throw rocks and cans and different things at us. I was afraid of getting hurt, but still I was willing to march to see justice done."

Connor calls out his police dogs. Firemen turn on high-pressure hoses. When the water hits the children, they are thrown on the ground and roll screaming down the street See It Now - Fire Hoses. Police dogs bite three teenagers so badly they have to be taken to the hospital. A small girl and her mother who kneel to pray on the steps of city hall are arrested and taken to jail. Seventy-five children are squeezed into a cell built for eight prisoners. Television cameras capture, and broadcast worldwide, what is happening to Birmingham's children . Decent people everywhere are outraged. Most haven't realized how bad things are for most blacks in the segregated South. Now they can see for themselves.

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