Tuesday 8 April 2014

They Fight a Fire That Won't Go Out

"The Civil Rights Movement should thank God for Bull Connor.  He's helped [the cause] as much as Abraham Lincoln."
(President John F. Kennedy)

Just as the Bus Boycott crippled the city of Montgomery in 1956, Project C crippled the city of Birmingham, Alabama in 1963.  Blacks, of course, were front and centre in the protest.  However, behind the scenes were photographers who captured images which turned middle class whites against the racist police, and in turn, against segregation.  Charles Moore was present to snap photos of Birmingham during that volatile riot, a riot that would lead to the signing of the Civil Rights act the following year.

In 1960, Birmingham was one of the most segregated cities in the United States.  While its population was at least 40% black, there were no black police officers, firefighters, bus drivers, bank tellers, sales clerks or cashiers.  The unemployment rate was two and a half times higher for blacks than whites and the average black's income was half that of the average white's.  Only ten percent of blacks were registered to vote.  Any black churches which held meeting about civil rights were targetted for bombings.  In fact, Birmingham had been given the nickname "Bombingham" due to the 50 unsolved racially motivated bombings in recent years.

The Sixteenth Street Baptist Church was designated the headquarters for the organizers of Project C, for Confrontation, which would include:  sit-ins at public libraries, kneel-ins at white churches, a march to the county building to register black voters and a boycott of downtown stores.  Many blacks refused to patronize the shops.  However, one black lady entered Loveman's Department Store to buy her children shoes for Easter and was chastised by the salesclerk for not supporting the blacks outside:  "Negro, ain't you ashamed of yourself?"

It was downtown, therefore, that Charles Moore and other photographers set up shop in April of 1963. Armed with cameras, film and flash bulbs, these photographers put themselves in the direct line of fire as they snapped photos of the protest, a protest which started out peacefully.

Fifty protesters were arrested on Good Friday and carted away to the Birmingham Jail.  Among them was their leader, Martin Luther King Jr., who along with his fellow prisoners, sang protest songs to rise above his oppressors.  It was in prison that he was inspired to write "Letter from a Birmingham Jail".  

Outside the prison, the crowd of protesters swelled.  One thousand students from the local high school joined forces with the original group.  Birmingham police chief Bull Connor did not wait long before he turned his snarling police dogs on the protesters.  The fire department unravelled their fire hoses, capable of taking the bark off a tree, on the protesters.  On May 3, Charles Moore captured an image that stunned the world:  three high school students pinned up against the doorway of a building by a powerful surge of water. Life magazine published the photo, along with several other pictures, in a feature titled:  "They fight a fire that won't go out."  

Business in downtown Birmingham's stores came to a virtual standstill.  Alabama state troopers arrived and blacks started to riot.  Bull Connor ordered more arrests. Birmingham jail overflowed with inmates.  Bull Connor had a makeshift jail set up at the fairgrounds to accommodate more arrested protesters, a group that would total 2500. President Kennedy, sickened by the images he watched on television, considered sending in the National Guard.  He urged the United Auto Workers and the Steelworkers to raise bond money for the jailed protesters and they responded in kind. 

By June of 1963, the Jim Crow signs above Birmingham's public facilities finally came down.  Charles Moore packed up his camera.  Martin Luther King went home to his family.  He was named Time's Man of the Year and awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts.  But the fight was not over.  The following September four young black girls were tragically killed in a bombing at the Sixteenth Street United Church. Blacks would not back down, however.  The fire would not go out.  

Note:  For more information read:

1.  "Ballad of Birmingham" at http://alinefromlinda.blogspot.ca/2012/05/ballad-of-birmingham.html.
2.  Powerful Days:  Civil Rights Photography of Charles Moore (Charles Moore)
3.  Birmingham 1963:  How a Photograph Rallied Civil Rights Support (Shelley Tougas)

Three teenagers protest in Birmingham, Alabama circa 1963 courtesy techpresident.com.

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