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.