An ardent segregationist who served for 22 years as commissioner of public safety in Birmingham, Alabama, Bull Connor used his administrative authority over the police and fire departments to ensure that Birmingham remained, as Martin Luther King described it, “the most segregated city in America” (King, 50). In 1963 the violent response of Connor and his police force to demonstrations during the Birmingham Campaign propelled the civil rights movement into the national spotlight.
Connor was born on 11 July 1897, in Selma, Alabama. After the death of his mother when he was eight, Connor traveled the country with his father, who moved from place to place as a railroad telegrapher. Connor never graduated from high school, but he learned telegraphy from his father and used this skill to gain employment at radio stations, eventually becoming a radio announcer.
Connor’s political career began in 1934, when he used his popularity as a Birmingham sportscaster to win a seat in the Alabama House of Representatives. After serving a term in the House, he was elected to the Birmingham City Commission, where he became known for his uncompromising opposition to integration.
When Birmingham voted to convert from a city commission system to a mayor/council system in 1962, Connor ran for mayor. Although he was defeated by Albert Boutwell in a run-off election the following spring, Connor refused to vacate his office and still maintained control of the city’s police and fire departments when the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights launched a massive assault on segregation in the city in April 1963. In King’s 1964 account of the campaign, Why We Can’t Wait, he characterized Connor as “a racist who prided himself on knowing how to handle the Negro and keep him in his ‘place’” (King, 49).
During the first days of the campaign, Connor avoided violent confrontations between police and protesters. Adopting a strategy that had successfully thwarted demonstrations in Albany, Georgia, Birmingham police jailed wave after wave of protesters without abuse. On 2 May 1963, when campaign leaders called on young students to sustain the protest, police arrested more than 900 “Children’s Crusade” participants.
On 3 May, however, Connor ordered firemen to use their hoses on protesters and onlookers, and as the demonstrators fled from the force of the hoses, Connor directed officers to pursue them with dogs. During the following days, television reports and newspapers across the country showed images of police and firemen using hoses, dogs, and batons to force demonstrators from downtown Birmingham.
National outrage forced the John F. Kennedy’s administration to send a negotiator, Burke Marshall, to Birmingham. The Birmingham Campaign ended on 10 May when an agreement was reached between black leaders and representatives of Birmingham’s business community that moved the city toward desegregation. On 23 May 1963, the Alabama Supreme Court ordered Connor and the other city commissioners to vacate their offices. Within a year, Connor won election to the Alabama Public Service Commission, where he served as president until 1972.
Eskew, But for Birmingham, 1997.
King, Why We Can’t Wait, 1964.