Racism in Birmingham Alabama Research Paper

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Birmingham Campaign of 1963 and the Civil Rights Movement

Since the end of the Civil War and the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which abolished slavery in America, equal rights for African Americans was one of the anticipated outcomes. Yet, the law did not swing entirely in favor of equality; rather, it offered freedom and segregation. Jim Crow laws were essentially institutionalized with the Plessy v. Ferguson (1896) decision, which affirmed that blacks were “separate but equal” to whites—i.e., they were “equal” in the eyes of the law (after all, the 14th Amendment had affirmed their equality, and the 15th had affirmed their right to vote—even women were not granted that right until the 19th Amendment), but as far as the law was concerned blacks were not permitted to mingle with whites in public. Thus, blacks had to sit in their own sections in a theatre (the balcony—referred to as “nigger heaven” by derisive whites, according to Van Vechten), they had to give up their seats to whites on buses, and they had to travel in their own train cars and dine in black-only restaurants. Though slavery had been abolished, racism persisted. In this whole story of Jim Crow racism, Birmingham, Alabama, would come to play a significant part. It would be the place of Martin Luther King’s arrest. He would pen his famous Letter from Birmingham Jail from there. This paper will discuss the Birmingham Campaign of 1963 and how it played a role in addressing the institutionalized racism of the U.S.A.

The Birmingham Campaign of 1963 was important in the Civil Rights Movement because it was what put MLK on the map. Birmingham had suffered from extreme segregation and racism and the civil liberties of African Americans were regularly being violated (Garrow). The Southern Christian Leadership Conference had identified Birmingham as a potential place in need of support, as blacks were extremely underrepresented in law enforcement—i.e., there were no blacks on the police force in a city that was half African-American (Garrow). Blacks were routinely paid less than whites in the city; their churches were being bombed on a regular basis and had been so for two decades running (Branch), and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) had even been banned—not just in Birmingham but throughout the whole state of Alabama. Clearly there was a need for something to be done. That was why MLK saw Birmingham as an opportunity to make a stand for Civil Rights. De facto discrimination was in effect (discrimination by fact—aka Jim Crow), and discrimination by law (i.e., enforced segregation) was the reality. The Birmingham Campaign was a push for desegregation and an end to the virulent racism that plagued the city.

When a pastor by the name of Fred Shuttlesworth started the Alabam Christian Movement for Human Rights, he was arrested and incarcerated for breaking the laws of the state regarding segregation.
His own home and church were attacked as well. It was clear that something had to be done. For that reason, Shuttlesworth sent word to MLK, who was ready to make a stand for the black community and challenge the racist institutions oppressing black communities (Garrow).

MLK’s goals in the Birmingham…

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…vote. This meant that all people were to be viewed as equal under the law. Since the end of the Civil War, this was all African Americans had ever wanted. Yet for a century they were denied these basic rights, even after they were supposedly given them by the 13th, 14th and 15th amendments. Jim Crow continued to rear its ugly head and even the Supreme Court did nothing to oppose Jim Crow. Plessy v. Ferguson showed as much with the ignominious ruling that blacks were to be considered as “separate” from whites.

The Birmingham Campaign of 1963 helped to erase this idea of separateness and put an end to segregation once and for all. King’s impassioned letter from jail was a major facilitator of this: it eloquently framed the situation and showed what it was really all about. King wrote: “For more than two centuries our foreparents labored here without wages; they made cotton king; and they built the homes of their masters in the midst of brutal injustice and shameful humiliation—and yet out of a bottomless vitality our people continue to thrive and develop….If the inexpressible cruelties of slavery could not stop us, the opposition we now face will surely fail. We will win our freedom because the sacred heritage of our nation and the eternal will of God are embodied in our echoing demands.” These words should not be forgotten because they get to the heart of what America was all about for 200 years after the initial Declaration of Independence was signed and equality was used by the Founding Fathers for the first time. Ironically, it took….....

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Works Cited

Branch, T. Parting the waters: America in the King Years, 1954-63. Simon & Schuster, 1988.

Garrow, D. Birmingham, Alabama, 1956-1963: The black struggle for civil rights. Carlson, 1989.

King, Jr., Martin Luther. Letter from Birmingham Jail, 1963. https://web.cn.edu/kwheeler/documents/Letter_Birmingham_Jail.pdf

Thoreau, Henry David Civil Disobedience, 1849. http://xroads.virginia.edu/~hyper2/thoreau/civil.html

Van Vechten, Carl. Nigger Heaven. University of Illinois Press, 2000.

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