Book excerpt: How Birmingham shaped MLK’s civil rights’ struggle

“By early 1963, Martin Luther King had stalled and – particularly to younger activists in the SNCC – seemed increasingly irrelevant. He needed to shake things up.” writes David Margolick in “The Promise and the Dream: The Untold Story of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy.” King chose Birmingham, Alabama, which he called the worst big city in race relations in the United States, as the place to do that. In this excerpt from the book, Margolick examines how the Birmingham campaign pushed the Kennedy administration to introduce its bill on civil rights.

Congress of Racial Equality members march in Washington D.C. in memory of those killed in the Birmingham bombings, 1963. REUTERS/Library of Congress


Everything changed in Birmingham with one tactical decision: to allow black youths to join the depleted and insufficiently fervent ranks of adult marchers, an idea first promoted by the SCLC’s [King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference] James Bevel. Schoolchildren as young as kindergarteners were recruited for the effort with flyers that beckoned “Fight for your freedom first then go to school.” Everyone acknowledged Robert Kennedy’s special bond with children, and not just because he eventually fathered eleven of them himself. Using them here, he cautioned, was “a dangerous business.” Black children, King replied, “are hurt every day.”

The “Children’s Crusade,” as Newsweek would dub it, brought endless waves of reinvigorated protests, and nightsticks, and arrests, and police dogs, and fire hoses forceful enough to strip bark (and clothing), and the instantly immortal photographs of black protesters besieged by German shepherds and columns of water that circulated worldwide. The most famous, of a dog lunging at a young black boy, appeared on May 3; [President] John Kennedy said it made him sick, and he was far from the only person to have that reaction. “Approximately then some whites in the North, who had not previously cared one way or another, decided that this was too much,” Mary McGrory wrote. One of those white northerners was Robert Kennedy. “When you see southern sheriffs attack Negro children, you see the wrongness of it all,” he subsequently told Richard Reeves of the New York Times.

On May 4, Burke Marshall [assistant attorney general In charge of the Justice Department’s civil rights division] arrived and began an intense round of meetings between black leaders and the “mules,” or leading businessmen, of the city. As entrenched as it was, official segregation at least proved to be a surprisingly shaky edifice, mostly because it was bad for business — a fact the low-key, methodical Marshall pointed out. “The fire trucks are out, there are thousands of people in the streets,” he told the moguls. “You have a choice. You can have this, or you can let Negroes eat at the lunch counters of department stores.” Less than a week later, the parties had reached a tentative deal, one that would, among other things, end segregated lunch counters, fitting rooms, and drinking fountains within ninety days. That meant, reported Charles Portis (he later wrote True Grit) in the New York Herald Tribune, that [Birmingham’s Public Safety Commissioner] Bull Connor “will at last be able to sit down in Loveman’s Department Store and have a Coke with Dr. King.” King, he wrote, “is a very somber man who almost never smiles, but yesterday he was beaming.”

Never one to gloat or let anyone become too complacent or to cast judgments on one group while exempting another, Robert Kennedy noted at a press conference that while southern papers hadn’t shown pictures of a dog attacking a black man, the northern papers had skipped photographs of a black man attacking a dog and a policeman with a knife and bottle. So people in the two places, he said, were “hardly talking about the same thing,” and for things really to change, that had to change. “Over the period of the next decade and the next twelve months, really, all of us in all sections of the country have a hell of a lesson to learn on the importance of getting a dialogue going between the people of the North and South,” he said.

On May 14, with the truce in Birmingham holding, John Kennedy met at the White House with a group of newspaper editors from Alabama. One local editor implored the president to get Martin Luther King to leave town — something Kennedy said he was unable to do. But a couple of others conceded that Alabama needed to move forward on race relations and thanked Kennedy for helping it do so. Only once — when someone described King as a White House “pet” — did the president grow irritated. (He’d met the man only twice, he said, which wasn’t quite right.) As the session ended, a majority of the newspapermen asked Kennedy for his autograph. “He did not bark, like Bobby,” Grover Hall of the Advertiser wrote.

The group then headed en masse to the Justice Department to see Bobby, who praised King for helping to quiet things down in Birmingham. “You have to understand this about Martin Luther King,” the attorney general told them. “If he loses his effort to keep the Negroes nonviolent, the result could be disastrous — not only in Birmingham but all over the country.” It was King, he noted, who’d gone around to the pool halls of black Birmingham collecting knives, telling people to stay off the streets, to be nonviolent. “If King loses,” he warned, “worse leaders are going to take his place. Look at the Black Muslims.”

In the privacy of the White House a few days later, Robert Kennedy painted an unflattering picture of black Birmingham, one reflecting some of his old condescension. “Many in the Negro leadership didn’t know what they were demonstrating about. They didn’t know whether they were demonstrating to get rid of Bull Connor, or whether they were demonstrating about the stores, or whether they’re demonstrating against the city government,” he told other high officials, including the president. “None of the white community knew what they were demonstrating about, and none of the white community would get near the Negro community at that juncture because they felt that they were being disorderly and so nobody was talking to anybody.”

In those same discussions, Kennedy warned of potential Birminghams everywhere, and not just in the South. “There must be a dozen places where we’re having major problems today,” he noted, citing how Chicago mayor Richard Daley had described surliness in the black community there. “The Negroes are all mad for no reason at all, and they want to fight,” he continued. “[Daley] says you can’t have a moderate Negro anymore.” And, he noted, the moderates who were still around were fighting among themselves: “[Civil rights activist] Roy Wilkins hates Martin Luther King.”

The brutal reality of racial marginalization and the absence of legal tools to deal with it led the administration to a fateful decision: it would, at long last, introduce a civil rights bill, one that would, among other things, ban racial discrimination in public accommodations, education, employment, and housing. Robert Kennedy’s press spokesman, Edwin Guthman, recalled how, en route to a conference in Asheville, North Carolina, on May 17, Kennedy and Burke Marshall sketched out its essential provisions.

The bill’s chances, Kennedy knew, were bleak. But even if it failed, it would have succeeded: as important as enacting something was, as he later put it, it was equally important “to obtain the confidence of the Negro population in their government and in the white majority.” In the meantime, he suggested a series of meetings with various groups — elected officials, theater owners, store owners, lawyers, ministers — to discuss and ease the tensions, to encourage voluntary measures until the law could be changed, and to build a consensus for such a measure.

The president agreed, though he specified that they see Martin Luther King last, after the southern officials and businessmen, and after the bill had gone up. “Otherwise, it will look like he got me to do it,” John Kennedy explained. “The trouble with King is that everybody thinks he’s our boy, anyway. So everything he does, everybody says we stuck him in there. We ought to have him well surrounded. . . . King is so hot these days that it’s like Marx coming to the White House.” Thanks to a primitive White House taping system, the sense that critics had always had of the Kennedy administration — that it had to soft-peddle, if not hide, its ties to Martin Luther King — is here magically and colorfully confirmed.

To King, Birmingham effectively bifurcated John Kennedy’s presidency. Formerly, he was cautious and begrudging; now he was fully engaged, “ready really to throw off political considerations and see the real moral issues.” “I think Birmingham did it,” King later recalled. “Birmingham created such a crisis in race relations that it was an issue which could no longer be ignored.” Only now could the president see “that segregation was morally wrong and . . . did something to the souls of both the segregator and the segregated.”

It was a moment, like Lincoln’s before the Emancipation Proclamation, when Kennedy realized he had to lead morally, rather than merely parrot the popular consensus. In the process, he won over King himself. [Stanley] Levison [King’s lawyer and adviser] characterized the relationship between Bobby Kennedy and Martin Luther King as “rather formal.” “They met mostly in meetings, except probably on those occasions when they discussed me,” he told Schlesinger in 1976. “But Martin liked the Kennedys.” And he instructed Levison to put a line in the book he was ghostwriting for him about the Birmingham crisis that, although he’d never cast a presidential ballot before, he planned to endorse John Kennedy for reelection in 1964.

The result, Levison later told Schlesinger, was a “de facto alliance” between the Kennedys and King and his movement. “They reacted positively and negatively so that any partisan can find ample quotes for his case,” he said of John and Robert Kennedy on race. But “both brothers,” he went on, “scandalously ignorant at the outset, pushed their way to a new perception that was more than the timeworn reformism. They were aware that the society needed major surgery to accomplish irreversible changes.”

Perhaps an idealistic John Kennedy had at long last shaken off — or liberated — the more coldly pragmatic Robert. But it’s far more likely that Robert Kennedy changed him (though only after first changing himself). Burke Marshall saw the results. “Every single person who spoke about it in the White House — every single one of them — was against President Kennedy’s sending up that bill . . . against making [civil rights] a moral issue,” Marshall later said. “The conclusive voice within the government at that time, there’s no question about it at all, [was] that Robert Kennedy was the one. He urged it, he felt it, he understood it. And he prevailed.” Only the president felt the same way, Marshall said, and “he got it from his brother.”

“Even the president himself was not always rejoicing in the fact that we were doing it,” Robert Kennedy later told Anthony Lewis, referring to the civil rights bill. “He would ask me every four days, ‘Do you think we did the right thing by sending the legislation? Look at the trouble it’s got us in.’ But always in a semi-jocular way. It always seemed to me always quite clear that that’s what we needed to do.”