Birmingham's leading civil rights advocate reiterates his desire for more concrete action in response to southern intransigence: “I have often stated that when the flowery speeches have been made, we still have the hard job of getting down and helping people to work to reach the idealistic state of human affairs which we desire.”1
I am writing you this letter because I feel that the leadership in Alabama among Negroes is, at this time, much less dynamic and imaginative than it ought be. More than this, there have been several serious incidents of beatings and kidnappings in the last few days; plus the fact that very much publicity is being given by our governor and the legislative forces to the forthcoming batch of segregation bills; and nothing has been said or done by us as leaders together to protest on an organized basis or to make Negroes who follow us believe that we are watching carefully these tactics, and making plans to meet them.2
I am sure that none know, more than you of my desire to cooperate fully with all areas in Alabama that are putting any kind of fight at all for Civil Rights. Surely you know of how I have plugged over and over again in our meetings for some type of set up so that we could make organized protests and take organized actions when something happens in our state. To date this has not been done, nor does there seem to be any way of getting the leaders of movements in Alabama together to such an extent. But I believe that time is running out for this thing to be done.
Neither have I any doubt that conferences once in a while without positive action to follow will help us to reach the goal we are seeking. And I have often stated that when the flowery speeches have been made, we still have the hard job of getting down and helping people to work to reach the idealistic state of human affairs which we desire. Even in our Southern Christian Leadership Conference, I believe we must move now, or else the hard put in the not too distant future, to justice our existence. Thus, I hope that our forthcoming gathering in Talahasse on May 13-14 will be the best, and that we can really lay some positive plans for action.3 Events of the past few days—actions named above and Appellate dismissal on technicalities of our bus appeal make me believe that now is the time for serious thinking and practical resulting action.4
1. For similar correspondence, see Shuttlesworth to King, 27 July 1957, in Papers 4:240-241; see also Shuttlesworth to King, 15 June 1959.
2. On 10 April, civil rights worker Charles Billups and two other black men were taken to a wooded area in Birmingham where they were robbed and beaten by at least three white men (“Three Negroes Said Robbed, Beaten Here,” Birmingham News, 10 April 1959). On 13 April, the U.S. Department of Justice denied Shuttlesworth’s request for an investigation (“Robbed, Beaten Minister Home from Hospital,” Birmingham World, 18 April 1959). The following week, African American activist O’Hara M. Prewitt was abducted and beaten in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, allegedly by Klu Klux Klan and White Citizens’ Council members (“Push Probe of Alabama Attack,” Birmingham World, 22 April 1959).
Shuttlesworth also refers to several recent proposals aimed at strengthening Alabama’s segregation laws. These included provisions to grant full control of public education to the states, to dispose of voter applicant rejection records within thirty days, to keep voter registration records away from fed+ era1 investigators, and to “create a standby legislative committee to watch racial developments in heavily Negro populated Macon County” (Hugh W. Sparrow, “Bills Offered to Tighten Laws on Segregation,” Birmingham News, 1 February 1959). A few days before Shuttlesworth wrote this letter, the Birmingham News reported on a bill being drafted to “give state and local authorities ample power to crack down on racial agitators” by requiring persons agitating for boycotts or otherwise endeavoring to provoke a breach of the peace” to reveal their supporters (Hugh W. Sparrow, “Bill Would Hold New Club over Race Agitators,” Birmingham News, 19 April 1959).
3. For more on SCLC’s Tallahassee meeting, see Statement Adopted at Spring Session of SCLC, 15 May 1959, pp. 205-208 in this volume.
4. On 25 April, the Alabama Court of Appeals in Montgomery refused to review the appeal of Shuttlesworth and twelve other demonstrators arrested in Birmingham for an October 1958 bus integration protest. Shuttlesworth and J. S. Phifer received fines and jail sentences of ninety and sixty days, respectively, for disorderly conduct; the other protesters received fines. Shuttlesworth and Phifer were freed on appeal bonds after serving five days in jail (“Negro Clerics Freed,” New York Times, 29 October 1958, and “Shuttlesworth, Other Leaders Denied Review,” Birmingham World, 29 April 1959).
MLKP-MBU, Martin Luther King, Jr., Papers, 1954-1968, Boston University, Boston, Mass.