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Fifty years ago, the notorious Bull Connor ordered white firemen to turn their high pressure firehoses on the demonstrators once again. But this time, on this day, they refused. How did this happen?

First, if you haven't seen it, you might want to watch the footage of the brutal attacks on nonviolent civil rights demonstrators in Birmingham two days earlier, on May 3rd. This is a clip from a Discovery Channel documentary:

The attack on that day, and the nonviolent response, set the stage for the events of May 5th. Even more importantly, the worldwide outrage generated by the attacks helped make it possible to pass the Civil Rights Act less than a year later.

But seeing mere one-line descriptions of the day when Bull Connor's minions defied him whetted my curiosity for more detail.

I had read about the defiance of the Birmingham firefighters in Martin Luther King's Why We Can't Wait (though King's account is not credible: please see below). Dave Dellinger refers to it in "Revolutionary Nonviolence," as does Barbara Deming, who was arrested in Birmingham while writing for the Nation. However, I believe Deming was in jail on the day in question, so she too must have heard about the incident rather than witnessed it.

The New York Times story doesn’t refer to the incident, perhaps because Bull Connor had cleared reporters from the scene.

The Global Nonviolent Action Database refers to the incident, but the source it cites (Morris, Aldon D. "Birmingham Confrontation Reconsidered: An Analysis of the Dynamics and Tactics of Mobilization." American Sociological Review, 58(5), Oct 1993. pp 621-636) only gives one line to it. But the Wikipedia page on Birmingham cites Diane McWhorter’s book, Carry Me Home: Birmingham, Alabama, the Climactic Battle of the Civil Rights Revolution ( to the Wikipedia entry). (An interview with McWhorter about the book is available on CSPAN's Booknotes page.)

McWhorter investigated the events of May 5th and relates these events in more detail. According to her, there were a few elements that contributed to the firemen's refusal. First, Charles Billups, a local civil rights leader (see more about his story in my comment below), led a column of 2000 marchers out of church in their Sunday best. When blocked by Bull Connor, the Birmingham police, their attack dogs, and the phalanx of fire hoses, he declared, “We haven’t done anything wrong. All we want is our freedom. How do you feel doing these things?” With tears running down his face, he started a chant, “Turn on your water, turn loose your dogs, we will stand here till we die.”

McWhorter reports Bull Connor ordered the firemen to blast them with high pressure hoses. Unlike two days before, they refused. He demanded a second time, yelling, “Dammit! Turn on the hoses.” She says, "Some firemen were crying, and one was heard to say, ‘We’re here to put out fires, not people.'”

Another factor in this refusal, according to McWhorter, was the role of Birmingham Fire Chief John Swindle.

McWhorter reports:

“Fire Chief John Swindle would not advertise his hand in Miracle Sunday. He had arrived on the scene late, after the protesters were bunched in the park, and observed that the ‘weren’t creating any problems.’ When Connor said to turn on the water, Swindle ‘didn’t hear him.’ Neither did his nozzlemen: After the heavy hosing the day before, the chief had instructed the fire department to ignore orders that did not come directly from him. Had Connor personally ordered Swindle to give his men the command, the chief later admitted, he “probably would have, because I didn’t have enough time [of service] to go on a pension.”
Taylor Branch's account in his Pulitzer Prize winning Parting the Waters (pp. 767-768),  disagrees in its particulars with Diane McWhorters account, in particular with regards to the role of James Bevel (McWhorters places him next to Billups, whereas Branch says he was hanging back at Wyatt Walker’s request). Branch’s account is strong on the divisions between the civil rights leaders about whether to hold a demonstration at all that day, but confused about Bull Connor’s orders (he describes Connor’s second order without ever saying he had given a prior one). Branch says that Wyatt Walker negotiated the demonstrators’ passage through police and fire lines by reassuring them that they weren’t headed into White Birmingham.

McWhorter says nothing about Walker’s role in the scene, instead claiming that when the firemen refused Connors’ repeated commands, the marchers “arose from their prayers singing ‘I Got Freedom over My Head’ and strode through a line of policemen and firemen parting like the Red Sea.”

One more note on this incident. McWhorter qoutes Martin Luther King as describing this demonstration as “one of the most fantastic events of the Birmingham story.... I saw there, felt there, for the first time, the pride and the power of nonviolence.” Others might have saw and felt that power, and King certainly was told, most likely in vivid terms, about these events, but King was in Atlanta on that day. As McWhorter describes it, “Charles Billups was the Moses of this miracle.”

I think it does a disservice to the activists' nonviolent courage of that day to describe it as a miracle, though I understand that some of the demonstrators described it in precisely those terms.

Instead, I think it demonstrates that even those with seemingly absolute power and a brutal propensity to wield violence, like Bull Connor, depend on the cooperation of those “beneath” them in the chain of command. Determined nonviolent struggle maximizes the chances of causing those chains of command to rupture, thus creating space for nonviolent breakthroughs.

Martin Luther King, in his prescient first speech as leader of the Montgomery Improvement Association declared (pdf):

As we stand and sit here this evening and as we prepare ourselves for what lies
ahead, let us go out with a grim and bold determination that we are going to stick
together. [applause]  We are going to work together. [applause] Right here in
Montgomery, when the history books are written in the future (Yes), somebody
will have to say, “There lived a race of people (Well), a black people (Yes sir),  
‘fleecy locks and black complexion’ (Yes), a people who had the moral courage
to stand up for their rights [applause] And thereby they injected a new meaning
into the veins of history and of civilization.”
The events of May 5, 1963, were a forerunner for the upsurge of successful nonviolent insurrections around the world of the last several decades.

(note, I published this diary for the first time last year at this time, but wanted to repost it for the 50th anniversary.)

Originally posted to samdiener on Sat May 05, 2012 at 06:58 AM PDT.

Also republished by Black Kos community, History for Kossacks, Barriers and Bridges, Discussing Race At Daily Kos, White Privilege Working Group, RaceGender DiscrimiNATION, Massachusetts Kosmopolitans, Anti-Capitalist Chat, and Community Spotlight.

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