Introduction

World War II brought African Americans closer to the mainstream of American life than ever before. Many moved out of the South to take jobs in defense industries. Others served in the still segregated military. (President Truman integrated the military in 1948.) Still, they were not fully part of American life. In the 1950s, African Americans and their allies organized a movement to gain full civil rights, to realize a dream too long deferred, as Langston Hughes put it in “Harlem.” Boycotts of white businesses, public transportation, and marches gave impetus to the movement. Reputedly one of the most segregated cities in the United States, Birmingham, Alabama became, in 1963,  a center of protest and action against discrimination and the denial of civil rights. Faced with continuing discrimination and rising protests, President John F. Kennedy decided to support a new civil rights law. (Congress had passed a series of such laws during the decade following the Civil War.) On June 11, 1963, after consulting with Congressional leaders, Kennedy addressed the American people to explain why the new law was necessary. Eight days later he sent the bill to Congress.

Opponents objected to various provisions, including equal access to public accommodations, but also to what they felt was its unconstitutional extension of federal power. Supporters organized a March on Washington in August 1963, at which Martin Luther King gave his now famous “I Have a Dream” speech. Stressing non-violent civil disobedience, King had become the leader of the Civil Rights movement. Opposition in Congress was sufficient, however, to prevent passage of the law. When Lyndon Johnson became president following Kennedy’s assassination in November 1963, he pushed for the new law, in part as a memorial to Kennedy. The law was passed July 2, 1964.

A motel in Atlanta, Georgia challenged the constitutionality of the public accommodation portion of the bill. The case reached the Supreme Court, which decided in December 1964 that the provision was a constitutional exercise of the federal government’s power to regulate interstate commerce. Attorneys General from Florida and Virginia had filed briefs urging that the lower court decision affirming the law be reversed, while attorneys general from California, Massachusetts and New York had filed briefs urging that it be upheld.


https://goo.gl/4WmEvJ. Fred Shuttlesworth and N. H. Smith were ministers in Birmingham, Alabama active in the civil rights movement. Birmingham was the site of non-violent demonstrations against segregation and black boycotts of white businesses in 1963. The demonstrations were met with violence by police and others. 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 set-back after set-back, 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.” 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.

L. Shuttlesworth, President
N. H. Smith, Secretary

Study Questions

A. What are the arguments of Senators Hubert Humphrey and Strom Thurmond for and against the Civil Rights Act? Are they making the same kinds of arguments? Proponents of civil rights like Martin Luther King and Fred L. Shuttlesworth appealed to the Declaration of Independence, as well as the Constitution; Thurmond to the Constitution and the rights it protects. Is there a conflict between the Declaration and the Constitution? How did the Supreme Court respond to those like Senator Thurmond who claimed that the Civil Rights Act violated the Fifth Amendment?

B. What is the connection between the Declaration of Independence and the rights claims made by workingmen, women, and African-Americans? Could those claims be made without the Declaration?

C. Consider the issues raised by the texts here in light of the discussion of the pernicious institution of slavery; how have attitudes from the earlier time period remained in force? How have they changed?

Footnotes

  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 beginning in 1961 to desegregate public interstate transportation. On May 14, 1961, Mother’s Day, a mob of Klu 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.