Our tour of Birmingham, Alabama begins in Kelly Ingram Park, which sits across the street from the famous 16th Street Baptist Church, where the four little girls were killed in a bombing. Birmingham native Barry McNealy, who directs the Legacy Youth Leadership Program at the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute, is our guide. He says 100,000 people visit this park every year. And he calls it a sacred site because it’s where young people gathered to do spiritual warfare against the embodiment of evil: Police Chief Bull Connor.
The first thing McNealy points out is the sign that greets all who enter here:
He tells us to look down at our feet and take notice of the unique multicolored brick pattern that can be found throughout the park.
He sings, “Yellow, black, brown and white; all are same in God’s sight.” That’s not something the majority of “good white Christians” of Birmingham believed during the days of Jim Crow. And even though some of the better-educated types found Police Chief Bull Connor to be an utter embarrassment to the city, he still reigned supreme.
When Connor looked at African Americans of any age, he clearly didn’t see human beings. He saw an enemy whittling away at his white power. And as abolitionist journalist Frederick Douglass wrote, “Power concedes nothing without a fight.”
And the kind of fight Bull Connor put up, in my opinion, should be widely known as a crime against humanity. How else to describe a man so seething with the poison of racial animus that he could order his Fire Department to turn its hoses on a children’s march and blast peaceful demonstrators with a tsunami of hatred and pain.
The source of Connor’s rage was that he was losing control. Global and national sympathy was building for young demonstrators who considered time in his jail as badge of honor. With 800 protesters crammed in the facility, the city was running out of space. Connor needed to up the ante to prevent the arrests in the first place.
“The minimum pressure of water flowing from a fire hose is 70 pounds per square inch (psi). When that didn’t do the trick, Bull Connor ordered the firemen the to turn pressure up to over 110 psi,” explained McNealy. “I’m a big guy. That would be enough to knock the air out of me and put me flat on my butt. But the women and girls had a special problem. The force of those hoses was so strong that it could grab your hair and snatch it out of your head. Some of the children said the hoses felt like a million needles.”
I asked McNealy if any of the firefighters ever resisted orders. (As a journalist and somewhat of a rebel, I am always on the lookout for the up-stander, the one who questions authority. I desperately want to believe that someone – particularly someone whose job it is to protect and save lives – would have a spark of conscience in the moment and not just in retrospect.) McNealy told me to hold that thought.
Preaching against segregation in Alabama was cause for arrest. Still, religious folks held Freedom Sundays, when blacks and white would challenge Jim Crow by worshipping together. Folk singer Joan Baez was invited to sing at one of these Freedom Sunday churches in order to raise money for the movement. When she arrived at the church, Bull Connor wouldn’t let her in because she’s “white.” (She’s actually Latina, but in Birmingham, she was white). Baez pulled out her guitar and just started singing.
On the subsequent march to Birmingham city jail, Connor again ordered the fire department to turn on their hoses. But the firemen did nothing and the marchers walked right on by. At this point Connor was fuming. He probably needed a hose-down himself. The firefighters told Connor they didn’t have any pressure in their hoses. And that was the truth, but the reason was that they never turned the pressure on in the first place. After that first violent water attack on demonstrators, the fire chief told his men they that were never again to use hoses against people, unless the order came directly from him. Finally: an act of defiance that can renew your faith in the human spirit.
The Foot Soldier Memorial in the park is a sculpture modeled after an Associated Press photo. Designed by Ronald McDowell, the official artist of the SCLC, it depicts a police officer and his German shepherd attacking a black boy. It’s enough to make any dog lover repudiate the breed.
Like the Nazis, Bull Connor loved to use dogs to terrorize people. Among his K-9 patrol was a favored black shepherd that Connor simply called “nigger.” Clever. On the day of the children’s march, this dog’s tail accidentally got caught in the door of a police car. If you really want to understand how Birmingham feels about its African American citizens read on. Barry McNealy tells us that the next day, the Birmingham newspaper had a front-page story all about that brave dog and his poor tail. Shame on the press.
I don’t have much to say about the infamous bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church, except to say it was a moving experience to be in this hallowed space. The building-was designed by the only black architect in Birmingham at the time and he made sure to build a church with exterior walls two feet thick so it would withstand whatever harm might come. It was actually the second church raised on that property. The first one was reportedly so beautiful that city authorities insisted it be torn down because blacks didn’t deserve such an awe-inspiring structure. The 16th Street Baptist is not a museum, but a real, functioning church. None of the familes of the four girls are still members.
Part Two: Visiting the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute and a tour of Dynamite Hill.
Julie Drizin, Silver Spring