In 1963, Eugene “Bull” Connor was the public safety commissioner of Birmingham, Alabama. Bull Connor was also the stereotypical red-faced, bull-necked, racist lawman who believed all blacks were genetically inferior. And Bull Connor was also, ironically, one of the best things that ever happened to the Civil Rights movement, which visited Birmingham in April of 1963.
Martin Luther King, his followers, and members of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) had come to Birmingham to stage protest marches, boycotts and sit-ins in hopes of forcing the city to end its discriminatory policies with respect to voting rights, jobs and equal access to public facilities. King had purposely targeted Birmingham because it was a city wholly committed to institutional segregation, and a city with no qualms about using violence to maintain it. Indeed, repeated bombings of black churches, homes and businesses earned it the nickname “Bombingham.”
Another goal of the protest was to generate nationwide media coverage, both to prod a very reluctant President John Kennedy (who was afraid to anger his political base, southern Democrats) into becoming more active in promoting equality for blacks, and to prod Congress to pass meaningful Civil Rights legislation.
Unfortunately, the initial stages of the protest were a total failure, at least in terms of generating media coverage. Also, as more protestors were jailed, the SCLC began running out of funds to bail them out. Thus many would-be protestors feared that long jail terms might cause them to be fired from their jobs, and partly as a result the ranks of volunteers quickly thinned.
And so this week (May 2) King and his advisors initiated a desperate strategy. They unleashed on the city a protest march of thousands of school children — it became known as the “Children’s Miracle March” — 600 of whom were in jail by day’s end.
Which is where Bull Connor comes in. As a group of children marched from the 16th Street Baptist Church, Connor and his men greeted them with high-pressure water hoses and police dogs, and the resulting pictures of young black children being knocked down by water hoses and viciously bitten by dogs made the front page of every newspaper, and led every television news program, across the land.
Americans were outraged, and even President Kennedy was so “sickened” by the photos that he overcame his timidity and gave a nationally televised speech demanding that Congress pass a comprehensive Civil Rights bill.
Kennedy was assassinated before he could get that bill passed, but his successor, Lyndon Johnson, immediately engineered passage of the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964.
To that end, we need to give Bull Connor some of the credit, although it’s highly doubtful he would want it.