Eugene ‘‘Bull’’ Connor, born in Selma, Alabama, in 1897 was commissioner of public safety in Birmingham during civil rights crusades of the 1950s and 1960s. His confrontation with Martin Luther King, Jr., in 1963 brought him notoriety as the ugly face of southern racism.
In his six terms as chief law officer in Birmingham between 1937 and 1953 and 1957 and 1963, Connor’s reputation and political support thrived on his staunch enforcement of racial segregation. His leadership of the public safety department was based on racism and cronyism. After a sexual scandal forced him out of office in 1953, he fought his way back to power four years later with appeals to white fears of racial integration. His strong support of segregation, however, set him on a collision course with the increasingly assertive civil rights movement.
The nation had its first glimpse of Bull Connor’s tactics in the spring of 1961, when Freedom Riders set off on an interstate bus journey through the South to publicize the persistence of segregated bus terminals. After violent collisions with whites in Rock Hill, South Carolina, and Anniston, Alabama, riders were greeted at the Birmingham bus station by Ku Klux Klan thugs who beat the protesters as they exited from the bus. The absence of any police protection for the riders occurred as a result of an arrangement between Connor and the Klan to allow Klansmen fifteen minutes to work on the passengers.
Two years later, in May 1963, Connor’s reputation as an ugly, stubborn racist was reinforced when the commissioner was confronted by Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr.’s civil rights crusade. Birmingham, which King had characterized as the most segregated city in the South, was riven by racial tensions. White businessmen had been economically damaged by months of black boycotts of the segregated downtown stores that had only white restrooms. Connor’s vigorous enforcement of the city’s segregation ordinances had eventually driven many of Birmingham’s business leaders to introduce a city government reform plan that would eliminate Connor’s office. Meanwhile, for months King and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference had been staging demonstrations against the city’s segregated facilities. The civil rights marches, however, by May, had been attracting diminishing participation, even after King himself went to jail for defying an injunction not to march. King decided to boost the flagging support for his crusade by sending hundreds of children out into the streets day after day. After mass arrests had filled city jails, Connor ordered the use of high-pressure fire hoses and police dogs to turn back the demonstrators. The televised brutal confrontation between defenseless black children, snarling dogs, and apparently heartless police brought the obscenity of southern racism directly into the living rooms of Northern whites. King’s strategy did, in fact, energize Northern liberals, as well as the Kennedy administration, leading to the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 that would finally outlaw segregation in public facilities. In Birmingham, the resulting economic consequences of racial disorder propelled white business owners in the city to more actively negotiate with civil rights leaders over accommodating black demands. Connor, himself, was forced out of office finally at the end of the May 1963 as the result of the structural reform of Birmingham’s city government. He ended his public career, safely shelved by the white business community, as president of the Alabama Public Services Commission until his retirement in 1972.
Bull Connor became the symbol of the intransigent Southern racism of the civil rights era. Ironically, however, it was Connor’s obstinate defense of segregation in Birmingham that ultimately was the catalyst for its demise. Speaking about his effect on the administration’s civil rights bill of 1963, President John F. Kennedy observed that Connor had done as much for civil rights as had Abraham Lincoln.
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