49 years ago, in April 1963, Martin Luther King, Jr. helped to organize and lead the “Birmingham Campaign.”

The Birmingham campaign was a strategic movement organized by the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) to bring attention to the unequal treatment that black Americans endured in Birmingham, Alabama. The campaign ran during the spring of 1963, culminating in widely publicized confrontations between black youth and white civic authorities, that eventually pressured the municipal government to change the city’s discrimination laws.

Organizers, led by Martin Luther King, Jr. used nonviolent direct action tactics to defy laws they considered unfair. King summarized the philosophy of the Birmingham campaign when he said: “The purpose of … direct action is to create a situation so crisis-packed that it will inevitably open the door to negotiation.”

Protests in Birmingham began with a boycott to pressure business leaders to provide employment opportunities to people of all races, and end segregation in public facilities, restaurants, and stores. When business leaders resisted the boycott, the campaign began a series of sit-ins and marches intended to provoke mass arrests.

High school students hit by high-pressure water jet from firehose during a protest in Birmingham, Alabama

The use of children proved very controversial. Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy condemned the decision to use children in the protests. Kennedy was reported in The New York Times as saying, “an injured, maimed, or dead child is a price that none of us can afford to pay,” although adding, “I believe that everyone understands their just grievances must be resolved.”

Dr. King was among 50 Birmingham residents ranging in age from 15 to 81 years who were arrested on Good Friday, April 12, 1963. It was King’s 13th arrest.

King wrote his famous “Letter from Birmingham Jail” during his confinement. He gave bits and pieces of the letter to his lawyers to take back to movement headquarters, where the Reverend Wyatt Walker began compiling and editing the literary jigsaw puzzle.

King’s letter is a response to a statement made by eight white Alabama clergymen on April 12, 1963, titled “A Call for Unity”. The clergymen agreed that social injustices existed but argued that the battle against racial segregation should be fought solely in the courts, not in the streets.

Read Letter from Birmingham Jail

He wrote, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly… Anyone who lives inside the United States can never be considered an outsider…” King expressed his remorse that the demonstrations were taking place in Birmingham but felt that the white power structure left the black community with no other choice.

First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy called Coretta Scott King to express her concern for King while he was incarcerated.

After King’s arrest, national business owners pressed the Kennedy administration to intervene. King was released on April 20, 1963.

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