During the Birmingham Campaign of 1963, Martin Luther King addressed Mayor Albert Boutwell in his “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” writing that he hoped the Birmingham mayor would see the wisdom of not resisting desegregation.
The grandson of two Confederate veterans, Boutwell was born 13 November 1904 in Montgomery, Alabama. After earning an LLB from the University of Alabama in 1928, he began practicing law in Birmingham, Alabama. Boutwell was elected to the State Senate in 1946 and served for three terms until 1958. During this time, he served as Chairman of the Interim Legislative Committee on Segregation in the Public Schools and authored the 1956 Alabama Pupil Placement Act, which successfully maintained segregation in Alabama’s public schools after the Brown v. Board of Education decision. In 1958 he was elected lieutenant governor of Alabama for the 1959 to 1963 term.
When the city of Birmingham held its first election for mayor in 1963, after changing from a commission form of government, Boutwell ran against Public Safety Commissioner Theophilus Eugene “Bull” Connor, a vehement segregationist. Hoping for Connor’s defeat, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and the Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights, headed by Fred Shuttlesworth, postponed their planned desegregation campaign until after the election. On 2 April 1963 Boutwell defeated Connor by 7,982 votes to become mayor of Birmingham, an outcome that Connor attributed to a 10,000-strong “Negro bloc vote” that favored Boutwell’s more moderate stance (“Connor Blames Negro Vote”).
Although newspaper coverage after Boutwell’s victory projected racial progress in Birmingham under the new mayor, King and his aides were not so optimistic. Dubbed by Shuttlesworth as “just a dignified Bull Connor,” Boutwell had declared that he would not tolerate violence and would “arrest, jail, and punish anyone who disturbs the peace or safety of our citizens” (King, 55; Spotswood, “Boutwell, Connor Push Campaigns”). After being elected, he urged Birmingham’s citizens, both black and white, to ignore the movement in Birmingham.
King was arrested on Good Friday, 12 April 1963, for violating an injunction against the desegregation protest and was imprisoned. In his “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” King declared that while Boutwell was less harsh than Connor he was still, like Connor, a segregationist.
On 10 May 1963 a truce declared between movement leaders and Birmingham’s leading businessmen ended the Birmingham Campaign. Later that year, Boutwell told the Birmingham School Board that he felt that the city’s integration was “not in the best interest of our school children” (Baker, “Now Wallace Faces”). Boutwell served as mayor of Birmingham until 1967, when he lost a bid for reelection. He died 3 February 1978.
Robert E. Baker, “Now Wallace Faces a Homegrown Challenge,” Washington Post, 8 September 1963.
“Boutwell Defeats Connor by Margin of 7,982 Votes,” Birmingham World, 6 April 1963.
“Connor Blames Negro Vote for Birmingham Loss,” Birmingham World, 16 April 1963.
Eskew, But for Birmingham, 1997.
King, “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” in Why We Can’t Wait, 1964.
James Spotswood, “Boutwell, Connor Push Campaigns,” Birmingham News, 10 March 1963.