Let Freedom Ring: A Documentary History of the Modern Civil Rights Movement

By Peter B. Levy | Go to book overview

Chapter Six BIRMINGHAM AND THE GREAT MARCH

While the "fires of discord" were widespread, two protests in the spring and late summer of 1963 catapulted the civil rights movement into the living rooms of most Americans, the Birmingham campaign and the March on Washington. One historian has termed Birmingham the Gettysburg of the second civil war. The March on Washington was the single largest protest to take place in the nation's capital since its creation and paved the way for a series of mass demonstrations. Both events deepened support for the civil rights movement and set the stage for the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the most significant piece of civil rights legislation since Reconstruction. The Birmingham campaign and the March on Washington also augmented Martin Luther King, Jr.'s reputation. This is not to suggest that these two protests were King's creation. On the contrary, they displayed the depth and breadth of a social movement that was much larger than any single individual.

6.1 Following their seeming defeat in Albany, Georgia, King and SCLC determined to plan their next action much more thoughtfully and thoroughly. Because of its long history of hostility to race reform, personified by Sheriff "Bull" Connor, an unreconstructed white supremacist who routinely used physical force against civil rights activists, SCLC chose Birmingham, Alabama, as its next target. (Recall that the Birmingham police force had mysteriously disappeared when the Freedom Riders arrived in town.) King and his top aides, Wyatt Walker, Andrew Young, and Ralph Abernathy, figured that if SCLC staged nonviolent demonstrations in Birmingham, Connor would respond with force, which would attract the attention of the mass media and the federal government.

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