Hundreds of State troopers were called in, to stand by with tear gas, sub-machine guns and shotguns.
Alabama’s segregationist Governor, George Wallace, threatened Negroes with prosecution for murder if anyone died in a demonstration.
This was the real fear: that sooner or later a police baton or a high-powered jet from a fire hose would kill or injure a Negro – perhaps a child – or that an enraged Negro would kill a policeman.
More disturbing still, it was clear that the wish for violence was close to the surface, even among those whose job it was to keep the peace.
Alter a prominent Negro leader was hurt this week when a jet of water bowled him along a pavement and slammed him against a wall, he was taken to hospital in an ambulance.
The city’s police and fire chief, Eugene (“Bull”) Connor, said: “I wish they’d carried him away in a hearse.”
But the wish for violence was not confined to the embattled white community.
Moderate Negroes had to restrain fellow-demonstrators from carrying weapons, and several police were injured by rocks hurled from rooftops and street corners.
Factors at work in Birmingham
There were a number of forces at work in Birmingham:
- The Negro children demonstrators organised by the Reverend Martin Luther King.
They paraded peacefully, and were marched off into buses and then to gaol as though going on a school excursion.
- The unorganised older Negroes who demonstrated angrily and spontaneously at the sight of children being sent to gaol.
These were the people most likely to set off a chain reaction of violence, and Martin Luther King, aware of this, told them to keep away.
- The police, guilty about imprisoning children, angry at the rocks and abuse hurled at them, and very close to flashpoint.
Late in the week, to reinforce them and create an even more dangerous climate of violence, came the State troopers. In the event they were not needed immediately.
- The Federal Government, which, through its on-the-spot mediator, Burke Marshall, of the Attorney-General’s Department, finally brought both sides together to create an uneasy truce.
Meanwhile the Reverend Martin Luther King is jubilant about the results of his campaign – despite its dangers.
He said: This is the first time in the history of our struggle that we have been able, literally, to fill the gaols. In a very real sense this is the fulfilment of a dream.”
The dream :“To lay the whole issue before the conscience of the community and the nation.”
Testing place shrewdly chosen
He chose shrewdly the place to do this: Not a minor, back ward centre, but a major city, heavily industrialised, in which at least some sections of the whole community has some sympathy for Negro demands – if only out of enlightened economic self-interest.
Alabama is a cotton State. But it is also the heavy-industry State of the south, and Birmingham is its Pittsburgh.
At the city’s back Red Mountain provides the local blast furnaces with apparently inexhaustible supplies of iron ore. Nearby are huge coal deposits.
Birmingham’s population about – 350,000 – is nearly 200,000 more than that of the State capital, Montgomery, and except on civil rights issues, its administration has been forward-looking and adventurous.
Present development plans, to cost more than £A40 million, include airport extensions and an urban highway scheme.
The city is completing an important research centre and a major art museum.
Birmingham, more than any other city in the State, and more than many other cities in the south, is a city of business and businessmen.
And significantly, it was the city’s business leaders – aware of Negro economic power and the bad publicity the city was getting – who helped to bring about this week’s truce.
But not many cities in the south are like Birmingham, although all of them are capable of reacting the way Birmingham did, to the very edge of bloodshed.
And the unanswered questions are: Where will it happen next? And could it happen again, even now, in Birmingham?