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Fred Shuttlesworth (1922–2011) and N. H. Smith (1930–2006) were ministers in Birmingham, Alabama, active in the civil rights movement. Birmingham had the reputation of being one of the most segregated cities in America. As Shuttlesworth and Smith recounted in their manifesto, civil rights activists had repeatedly petitioned for repeal of segregation ordinances and other measures to alleviate racial discrimination. When these efforts failed, the civil rights activists decided to turn to direct action, including marches and boycotts of downtown businesses. The manifesto announced the beginning of these direct actions and the reasons for resorting to them.
Martin Luther King Jr. (1929–1968), head of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, which Shuttlesworth had helped found, joined the protests. Stressing nonviolent civil disobedience, King had become the leader of the civil rights movement. Following his arrest during one of the protests, King wrote his famous “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.” The demonstrations and the boycott eventually succeeded. This occurred in part because of the adverse national and international publicity created by the violent response of the police and others to the effort to desegregate Birmingham. In May 1963, an agreement was reached addressing many of the concerns raised by the civil rights activists. Violence by die-hard segregationists continued, however. In September 1963, an African American church in Birmingham was bombed, killing four young girls.
The patience of an oppressed people cannot endure forever. The Negro citizens of Birmingham for the last several years have hoped in vain for some evidence of good faith resolution of our just grievances.
Birmingham is part of the United States and we are bona fide citizens. Yet the history of Birmingham reveals that very little of the democratic process touches the life of the Negro in Birmingham. We have been segregated racially, exploited economically, and dominated politically. Under the leadership of the Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights,1 we sought relief by petition for the repeal of city ordinances requiring segregation and the institution of a merit hiring policy in city employment. We were rebuffed. We then turned to the system of the courts. We weathered setback after setback, with all of its costliness, finally winning the terminal, bus, parks, and airport cases. The bus decision has been implemented begrudgingly, and the parks decision prompted the closing of all municipally owned recreational facilities with the exception of the zoo and Legion Field. The airport case has been a slightly better experience with the experience of hotel accommodations and the subtle discrimination that continues in the limousine service.
We have always been a peaceful people, bearing our oppression with super-human effort. Yet we have been the victims of repeated violence, not only that inflicted by the hoodlum element but also that inflicted by the blatant misuse of police power. Our memories are seared with painful mob experience of Mother’s Day 1961 during the Freedom Rides.2 For years, while our homes and churches were being bombed, we heard nothing but the rantings and ravings of racist city officials.
The Negro protest for equality and justice has been a voice crying in the wilderness.3 Most of Birmingham has remained silent, probably out of fear. In the meanwhile, our city has acquired the dubious reputation of being the worst big city in race relations in the United States. Last fall, for a flickering moment, it appeared that sincere community leaders from religion, business, and industry discerned the inevitable confrontation in race relations approaching. Their concern for the city’s image and commonweal of all its citizens did not run deep enough. Solemn promises were made, pending a postponement of direct action, that we would be joined in a suit seeking the relief of segregation ordinances. Some merchants agreed to desegregate their restrooms as a good-faith start, some actually complying, only to retreat shortly thereafter. We hold in our hands now, broken faith and broken promises.
We believe in the American Dream of democracy, in the Jeffersonian doctrine that “all men are created equal and are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights, among these being life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”
Twice since September we have deferred our direct action thrust in order that a change in city government would not be made in the hysteria of community crisis. We act today in full concert with our Hebraic-Christian tradition, the law of morality, and the Constitution of our nation. The absence of justice and progress in Birmingham demands that we make a moral witness to give our community a chance to survive. We demonstrate our faith that we believe that The Beloved Community4 can come to Birmingham.
We appeal to the citizenry of Birmingham, Negro and white, to join us in this witness for decency, morality, self-respect, and human dignity. Your individual and corporate support can hasten the day of “liberty and justice for all.”5 This is Birmingham’s moment of truth in which every citizen can play his part in her larger destiny.
—The Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights,
in behalf of the Negro community of Birmingham.
F. L. Shuttlesworth, President
N. H. Smith, Secretary
- 1. Shuttlesworth, Smith, and others created this organization in 1956, after the state of Alabama banned the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.
- 2. Freedom Rides were bus trips taken across the South, especially in 1961, to desegregate public interstate transportation. On May 14, 1961, Mother’s Day, a mob of Ku Klux Klan members attacked the Freedom Riders in Anniston, Alabama.
- 3. Isaiah 40:3; Mark 1:3; John 1:23.
- 4. A term associated with Martin Luther King, “the beloved community” was one characterized by brotherhood rather than conflict. See https://goo.gl/LnPr2Z.
- 5. Words from the Pledge of Allegiance.