Desegregation in Birmingham, Alabama

In the summer of 1962, civil rights leaders attempted to desegregate public recreational facilities in Birmingham, Alabama, “…the most segregated city in America.” (Jennings and Brewster, p. 381.) Birmingham was referred to by civil rights leaders as “Bombingham” and “the Johannesburg of America.” (Seeger and Reiser, p. 103.) Rather than allow desegregated public facilities, the local leaders closed all public recreational facilities. “…[S]ixty-eight parks, thirty-eight playgrounds, six swimming pools, and four golf courses [we]re locked up.” (Hakim, p. 328.)

Blacks reacted by holding peaceful protests. They were met with firehoses and dogs from “Bull” Connor’s police force. And, they were arrested. “Seventy five children are squeezed into a cell built for eight prisoners.” (Id. at 332.) In April, 1963, Martin Luther King, Jr. and other civil rights activists were also arrested and taken to jail. (Id. at 329.) After his arrest in April, King wrote the “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” a statement of philosophy and purpose behind his civil rights activities. The letter has been described as “…perhaps the greatest piece of literature produced by the civil rights movement.” (Jennings and Brewster, p. 381.)

The most dramatic moments of the Birmingham campaign came on May 2, 1963 when more than 1,000 black children left school to join the demonstrations. Hundreds were arrested. The following day, 2,500 more students joined and were met by “Bull” Connor with police dogs and high-pressure firehoses. That evening, television news programs reported to the nation and the world scenes of firehoses knocking down schoolchildren and dogs attacking individual demonstrators. Public outrage forced the Kennedy administration, which had previously been reluctant to back up its campaign promises to the black community with action (van Rijn, Kennedy, pp. xii-xiv), to intervene more forcefully. A settlement was announced on May 10, under which the downtown businesses would desegregate and eliminate discriminatory hiring practices, and the city would release the jailed protesters. Phil Ochs memorialized these events in his song Talking Birmingham Jam,(1963). (

Walkin’ down to Birmingham
Way down south in Dixie Land
Oh, I thought that I would stop awhile
Take a vacation southern style

Got some southern hospitality
Down there in a southern hospital
Oh, all the signs said welcome in
Signed by Governor Wallace and Rin-Tin-Tin

They said come along and watch the fights
While we feed our dogs on civil rights
Now, don’t get us wrong
Some of our best Negroes are friends

Well I’ve seen travelin’ many ways
I’ve traveled in cars and old subways
But in Birmingham some people chose
To fly down the street from a firehose

Doin’ some hard travelin’
From hydrants of plenty
Well, a pack of dogs was standin’ by
I walked up to them and I said, “Hi”

I asked one dog what they all were doin’
He walked up to me and started chewin’
I said, “Hold it, I’m from the A.S.P.C.A.
Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Agitators”

And I said, “There must be some men around
There can’t be only you dogs in town”
They said, sure, we have old Bull Conner
There he goes walkin’ yonder

Throwin’ some raw meat to the Mayor
Feedin’ bones to the city council
You know Governor Wallace doesn’t mean no harm
Can’t you see he’s got a lot of charm?

He protectin’ us whites, both the rich and poor
Standin’ in the schoolhouse door
Crackin’ jokes, talkin’ to Huntley Brinkley
Servin’ jury duty, gettin’ re-elected

So, I asked them why they spent their time
With segregation on their mind
They said, “If you don’t like to live this way
Get out of here, go back to the U.S.A
Live with all them Russians and New York folksingers”

Some say they’re past their darkest hour
Those moderates are back in power
Oh, they listen close with open ears
They’ll help us out in a couple of hundred years

But don’t push ’em whatever you do
Or else you’ll get those extremists back in
You see, Alabama is a sovereign state
With sovereign dogs and sovereign hate

They stand for the Bible and Constitution
They stand against communist revolution
They say “It’s Pinkoes like you that freed the slaves”
And they’re right