Birmingham Police Violently Stop Protesting Schoolchildren
In the spring of 1963, African American protesters organized by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference nonviolently demonstrated against the racist “Jim Crow” laws that made Birmingham, Alabama, a tense, segregated city. On May 2 police were confounded when organizers had schoolchildren participate in the marches. More than 1,000 schoolchildren, mostly teenagers, skipped school to march in the streets, and over 600 were arrested.
Undeterred, more students vowed to march the next day. On May 3, 1963, they came back and were attacked by the police, whose leader, Eugene “Bull” Connor, decided more violent methods were appropriate. The police turned attack dogs and fire hoses on the schoolchildren, injuring several. The fire hoses did not merely get the children wet; the pressure was turned up so high that the streams of water blasted the dazed protesters.
A horrified America saw pictures of schoolchildren being attacked, and momentum grew to end racial segregation in the South. Eventually, Connor lost his job and more public places in Birmingham became desegregated, thanks in no small part to the courage of those young protesters.
This copyrighted article was published by the Plain Dealer (Cleveland, Ohio) on the front page of its May 4, 1963, issue:
Dogs, Hoses Drive Off Negroes
Birmingham Mayor Asks for Truce
Birmingham, Ala. (AP)—Snarling police dogs chased away crowds of Negroes and fire hoses flattened youthful demonstrators yesterday as hundreds of Negroes tried to stage anti-segregation marches.
Five negroes reported they were either bitten by the leashed dogs or injured by water hoses which a fireman said had pressure of 50 to 100 pounds.
Police jailed an estimated 200 Negroes on charges of parading without a permit. Nearly 700 demonstrators were arrested Thursday, bringing the total of arrests to 1,300 since the desegregation campaign began April 3.
As Negroes stepped up demonstrations, Mayor Albert Boutwell appealed for “restraint and peace.”
Boutwell, considered more moderate than his predecessors, pledged “immediate and determined attention to resolving the difficulties facing us.” But a legal dispute has delayed his taking full authority.
He urged a halt to demonstrations.
“I hope and pray that the adult citizens, white and colored alike, will realize that the future of a great city depends upon their good conduct and self-restraint,” Boutwell said.
In Washington, Atty. Gen. Robert F. Kennedy issued a statement in which he questioned the methods used by the Negro leaders and said, “Schoolchildren participating in street demonstrations is dangerous business. An injured, maimed or dead child is a price none of us can afford to pay.”
Kennedy spoke of “very real and deep injustices” that he said the city’s Negro and white communities know have been inflicted on Birmingham Negroes but added: “I hope for the sake of everyone that this can be done in meetings, in good-faith negotiations and not in the streets.”
Ambulances took four Negroes from the church where the demonstrations started near the downtown business district. Milton Payne, 23, exhibiting leg wounds, said he was bitten by a police dog.
Another Negro, Henry Lee Shambry, 34, said he was bitten by two police dogs. One of his trouser legs was ripped nearly off.
A woman, Vivian Lowe, was bleeding from the nose. She said she was injured by a stream of water from the fire hoses. An unidentified girl suffered cuts about her eyes when struck by the stream of water.
Some Negroes, mostly onlookers, tried to resist officers and one pulled a pocketknife on an officer with a dog. Policemen grabbed several belligerents and at least one was caught around the neck by an officer.
About 60 Negroes were jailed in the first series of attempted marches. Two hours later, 50 more marchers were turned back by water hoses.
After two diversionary marches in the block around the church, about 50 teenagers started marching toward the downtown area. They had skipped school classes.
Police blocked off the entire section surrounding the church.
Another group left minutes later, headed in another direction.
An unidentified white man attempted to run his car into one group. He was jerked from the car and arrested by officers.
With firemen brandishing their hoses, a policeman with a loudspeaker warned the marchers, “Disperse or you’ll get wet.”
The teenagers, most of them 13 to 16, kept moving.
Then the water hit them. Covering first with hands over their heads, then on their knees or clinging together with their arms around each other, they tried to hold their ground.
Firemen held the stream steadily on one youth in the front of the group. His T-shirt was ripped by the pressure of the water.
Another group tried to march. They got to the same street corner. As the stream of water hit the group—mostly teenage girls—it wedged them back as they resisted.
The hoses were turned on the crowd of several hundred Negro spectators. They began yelling in protest.
William Wayne Parchmon, 17, soaked by the hoses, said, “Innocent spectators and children were hit by the water.”
“It’s like being hit by a piledriver,” Parchmon said.
Some of the Negroes, milling in the park opposite the church, began yelling threateningly at officers. Police Commissioner Eugene Connor ordered the dogs brought in.
“All you gotta do is tell them you’re going to bring the dogs,” said Connor. “Look at ’em run. Bring the dogs anyway, captain.”
After calling for the dogs, Connor yelled to an officer who was holding back a crowd of white onlookers.
“Let those people come to the corner, sergeant,” Connor said. “I want them to see the dogs work. Look at those niggers run.”
The crowds of Negroes fled, with policemen and dogs running after them. Some Negroes threw rocks and other missiles either at the dogs or the officers.
Swinging the nightsticks and hanging onto the dogs, the policemen chased the Negroes back into the vicinity of the church. There was no report of anyone being struck by a policeman’s stick.
The marching attempts followed [the] announcement of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., integration leader, that an all-out desegregation campaign had been launched with demonstrations Thursday. Between 600 and 700 Negroes, mostly schoolchildren, were jailed then for marching without a permit.
In Washington, meanwhile, a Republican civil rights leader promised to support President Kennedy if he should resort to federal power to deal with the Birmingham disturbance.
Sen. Jacob K. Javits, R.-N.Y., in a telegram to Mr. Kennedy, said, “I am sending you this message to assure you that should you feel that the facts warrant action, you will be supported.”
For more information, visit The Martin Luther King, Jr., Research and Education Institute website provided by Stanford University.
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