In the spring of 1963 Martin Luther King, Jr., decided to join the local activists and the movement leader, Fred Shuttlesworth, in the campaign to protest segregation laws in the city of Birmingham, AL. Notorious for racial discrimination, Birmingham had a reputation for violence against those who challenged segregation. Aware of the strategic importance to break segregation in Birmingham, King joined the campaign, putting the principles of nonviolent direct actions to the test.
The campaign began in April 1963 with a series of lunch counter sit-ins, marches on city hall, and boycotts of downtown merchants, in the hope they would make concessions to the movement. For weeks, as the young people gathered and protested, it was crucial that their actions remained nonviolent. Music and freedom songs played an important role in upholding the morale of the movement. However, the peaceful protesters had often experienced violent assaults. Police used brutal confrontation, high-pressure water cannons, and service dogs to attack men, women, and children alike. Moreover, hundreds were arrested and taken to jail, including students and children.
On April 12, police arrested Martin Luther King, Jr., for demonstrating without a permit and took him to jail. While in solitary confinement, King drafted a compelling response to the local clergymen's criticisms of the campaign. In his "Letter From Birmingham Jail," King eloquently justified the protests and his involvement as a moral obligation to stand up to injustice, whenever and wherever present.
As national and international press drew attention to the escalation of the campaign in Birmingham, the Kennedy administration decided to intervene on behalf of the movement. Justice Department officials arrived to negotiate a settlement between the civil rights advocates and the city's white leaders. After an initial argument between Shuttlesworth and King, both leaders finally accepted a compromise settlement promising gradual desegregation of public facilities and a modest expansion of jobs for black workers. While the Birmingham campaign was a successful model of nonviolent direct action protest, it did not end in a complete victory. Birmingham segregationists continued with violent attacks on the black community, including the bombing of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church that killed four young girls.