As early at May 1962 Birmingham minister and SCLC member Fred Shuttlesworth had suggested that the SCLC ally with his own organization, the Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights, to protest conditions in Birmingham. Birmingham was the wealthiest city in Alabama, and a bastion of segregation. The mayor was a segregationist and the police commissioner, Eugene "Bull" Conner was known for his hostile and sometimes violent treatment of blacks. The Governor of the state was George Wallace, who had won office with promises of "segregation forever."
In Birmingham between 1957 and 1962 seventeen black churches and homes had been bombed, including the home of Shuttlesworth, who campaigned actively for civil rights. Although the population of Birmingham was 40% African American, there seemed little hope for a political solution to the racial divide: of 80,000 registered voters, only 10,000 were black.
King did not adopt Shuttlesworth's suggestion until early 1963, but once he did, he treated it as a major campaign. In March King, along with Ralph Abernathy and a few other SCLC organizers, set up headquarters in a room at a motel in one of Birmingham's black neighborhoods. They began recruiting volunteers for protest rallies and giving workshops in nonviolent techniques. Initially King head scheduled the protests to begin in time to disrupt Easter season shopping, giving them economic bite. He postponed his plans, however, to prevent them from affecting the local mayoral election, in which Bull Conner was a candidate.
The campaign began on 3 April with lunch-counter sit-ins. On 6 April, protestors marched on City Hall, and forty-two people were arrested. Demonstrations occurred each day thereafter. While the jails filled with peaceful blacks, King negotiated with white businessmen, whose stores were losing business due to the protests. Although some of these businessmen were willing to consider desegregating their facilities and hiring African Americans, City officials held fast to segregationist policies. On 10 April, these officials obtained an injunction prohibiting the demonstrations. Unlike the injunction in Albany, Georgia, however, this one came from a state court, not a federal one. King felt comfortable violating such an injunction, on the grounds of adhering to the federal laws with which it was at odds.
Getting the other leaders of the campaign to violate the injunction, however, took some convincing by King, especially as many of the clergy felt bound to be in the pulpit–and not in jail–on the following Sunday, which was Easter. But King succeeded in persuading them to his cause, and personally led a march on Good Friday, 12 April. All protestors were quickly arrested. Birmingham police separated King and Abernathy, placing each in solitary confinement, and denying each man his rightful phone-calls to the outside world.
Disturbed by the unprecedented silence from her husband, Coretta Scott King called the White House. Her call was returned by Robert Kennedy and then by the President himself. The Kennedy Administration sent FBI agents to Birmingham, and King promptly received more hospitable treatment. Moreover, this intervention by Kennedy gave the movement greater momentum.
King spent eight days in his cell. During that time he composed his "Letter from a Birmingham Jail." The letter was ostensibly conceived in response to a letter that had recently run in a local newspaper, which had claimed that the protests were "unwise and untimely"; however, King also quite deliberately wrote his letter for a national audience. The letter reveals King's strength as a rhetorician and his breadth of learning. It alludes to numerous secular thinkers, as well as to the Bible. It is passionate and controlled, and was subsequently appropriated by many writing textbooks as a model of persuasive writing. At the time, it gave a singular, eloquent voice to a massive, jumbled movement.
Once King was released from jail, the protests assumed a larger scale and a more confrontational character. At the suggestion of SCLC member Jim Bevel, the organizers began to recruit younger protestors. They visited high schools, training youth in nonviolent tactics. The method was dangerous–kids could get hurt–but also potentially very symbolically powerful: children were the beneficiaries of the movement; they represented the movement's hope for the future.
On 2 May King addressed a young crowd at the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church. Afterward they marched downtown, singing "We Shall Overcome," and nearly a thousand youths were arrested. The next day, more young people had arrived to replenish the ranks, and another march occurred. By this point, the situation had become overwhelming for Bull Conner, whose jails were full. On 3 May he had his forces blast the young protestors with fire-hoses, and released attack dogs against them. It was these acts of violence–broadcast on national television– that pricked the national conscience, and marked a turning point not only in Birmingham but also in the Civil Rights Movement as a whole. Telegrams flooded the White House conveying outrage, and it became clear that the Kennedy Administration would have to confront civil rights issues more directly.
In a day or two the protests had become so massive and volatile that the City was willing to negotiate. It listened to the demands of the SCLC, and set a schedule for the desegregation of lunch counters and other facilities. It also promised to confront the issue of inequality in hiring practices, to grant amnesty to arrested demonstrators, and to create a bi-racial committee for the reconciliation of differences.
As had happened in Montgomery, violence followed the concessions. Whites bombed black homes and churches, and blacks retaliated with mob violence. King's activities in Birmingham, therefore, included a final stage, during which he patrolled the city, speaking wherever people had gathered; he implored African Americans to answer violence only with peace.
While changes in local policies constituted the Birmingham campaign's immediate outcome, the effort's long-term effects were felt nation-wide. In the weeks that followed, tensions flared, and protests commenced in scores of Southern cities. King's fame as a civil rights leader was redoubled. And on 11 June, President Kennedy voiced his commitment to federal civil rights legislation. He had been holding off, preoccupied by the Cold War, but Birmingham had pressed the issue. Kennedy's commitment culminated in the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which was signed into law by Lyndon Johnson after Kennedy's assassination. The act mandated federally what had in Birmingham been won locally: a white commitment to desegregation and equal employment opportunities. It also gave the federal government power to enforce desegregation laws in schools by withholding funds from noncompliant districts.