The Message That Miracle Sunday Has For Us Today.
May 3, 1963, the Birmingham, Alabama jail was over capacity with 1,200 jailed civil rights protestors. Civil Rights leaders were virtually depleted of adults willing to continue the Birmingham movement. The civil rights campaign that had begun one-month prior had almost been crushed by the month-long mass incarcerations, including the April 12th arrest of Martin Luther King.
On May 1, 1963, Birmingham Commissioner of Public Safety, Eugene “Bull” Conner had to have felt pretty good about himself. After almost a month of protest, he seemed on the verge of finally defeating the civil rights activist and keeping his earlier promise, “ain’t gonna segregate no niggers and whites together in this town.” Conner had successfully and unconstitutionally obtained an injunction making it illegal to protest in Birmingham, and had raised the bond for those arrested for violating this or from $200 to $1,500.
Most people might not know it, but there are interesting parallels to the civil rights movement of the 1960’s and today. It was widely claimed by “arch-segregationist” that the Civil Rights movement of the 1960’s was a communist plot and the violence associated with protest were solely the faults of black protestors. Many white Americans adamantly believed that Civil Rights demonstrators were merely paid anarchist by communist regimes.
On May 2, 1963, Conner’s confidence was rocked by the fact that thousands of high school, middle school, and elementary school children had taken up the slack left by the lack of adult activist. The “Children’s Crusade” was well organized as the children marched in disciplined ranks, with excellent communication, and timed interval freedom movements. By the end of the day, 600 children, some as young as 8-years old were arrested. To make matters even more dumbfounding for Conner and the police, the children peacefully accepted arrest and sang “We Shall Overcome” like they were at a school picnic.
By May 3, 1963, with the jail full, Conner decided to employ a new tactic for law and order. With 1000 children marching towards downtown Birmingham, Conner ordered the city’s fire department to set their fire hoses at a level that would peel the bark off a tree or separate bricks from mortar to be turned against the children. After sending children rolling across asphalt streets with the dominant force of the water blast, Conner said, “I want ‘em to see the dogs work.” Police K9 dogs were then released on the child protestors. Bystanders appalled by what they were seeing, began to hurl bottles and rocks at the police. Conner would later justify the use of force that day, by saying the police were attacked by the protestors throwing bottles and rocks first. No police officers or firefighters were ever reported to have been injured that day.
By the afternoon, when the protest ended with many of the children being injured or arrested, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr, addressed a crowd of a thousand worried parents, “Don’t worry about your children who are in jail. The eyes of the world are on Birmingham. We’re going on in spite of dogs and fire hoses. We’ve gone too far to turn back. “
On May 5, 1963, a column of 2,000 Civil Rights marchers dressed in their Sunday best took back to the streets to march into the Birmingham business district. When Conner and the Birmingham Police blocked the road, local Civil Rights leader, Charles Billups went out in front of the group of protestors and declared “We haven’t done anything wrong. All we want is our freedom. How do you feel doing these things?” The protestors began to chant then, “Turn on your water, turn loose your dogs, we will stand here till we die.”
On May 5, 1963, Public Safety Commissioner “Bull” Conner ordered the fireman to again turn on their hoses and blast the protestors. However, this time the all-white firemen refused Conner’s order. An angry Conner yelled at the firefighters “Dammit! Turn on the hoses!” The firemen silently stood motionless, some of them with tears running down their cheeks. Finally, one fireman piped up and said, “We’re here to put out fires, not people.”
When the water hoses were never turned on, the protestors, singing “I Got Freedom over My Head” peacefully marched right through the line of policemen and firemen once blocking the street. It was a scene that was later compared to be as significant and influential as the parting of the Red Sea.
That day has been described as “Miracle Sunday, ” and all of the events of Birmingham proved to be pivotal roles in ushering in the 1964 Civil Rights Act. “Bull” Conner would end up losing his job.
As monumental as Miracle Sunday was in the fight for Civil Rights, there is one significant detail that must never be overlooked. Evil and seemingly powerful people, like “Bull” Conner, are only as powerful as the ones who are willing to follow their orders.