"Because we were convinced of the significance of the job to be done in Birmingham, we decided that the most thorough planning and prayerful preparation must go into the effort. We began to prepare a top secret file which we called "Project C"-the "C" for Birmingham's Confrontation with the fight for justice and morality in race relations.
In preparation for our campaign, I called a three-day retreat and planning session with SCLC staff and board members at our training center near Savannah, Georgia. Here we sought to perfect a timetable and discuss every possible eventuality."
From: The Autobiography of Martin Luther King, Jr. Ed. Clayborne Carson, Chapter 18.
In this classroom activity students reenact the planning of the Birmingham Campaign. Through the Project C Strategy Committee role play students will experience the challenges of organizing a direct action campaign. Students will also be introduced to the historical events in Birmingham through both primary and secondary sources. In both cases, students will complete their Role Play Decision Chart as they progress through each page of the role play.
- What were the goals of Project C and how were these goals to be accomplished?
- As Project C began to unfold in Birmingham in the spring and summer of 1963, how were these events reported to the nation and world?
Role Play Introduction:
In this role play each of you will assume the role of the following participants in the Birmingham movement to end segregation; Martin Luther King, Jr., Wyatt Tee Walker, Fred Shuttlesworth, and Ralph Abernathy. As you participate in this activity, keep record of your decisions and reflection on the Project C Decision Chart. Once you have recorded your answers, continue to the next section.
Information for each segment was compiled from the King Papers Project archives, King Encyclopedia and historian Taylor Branch’s Parting the Waters.
Role Play Activities
Part One: The planning committee
It is January of 1963 in a small town outside Savannah, Georgia. Martin Luther King Jr. of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference presides over a strategy meeting of eleven activists, including Fred Shuttlesworth, Wyatt Tee Walker, Ralph Abernathy and Andrew Young. The goal is to join efforts with the Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights, under the leadership of Shuttlesworth, to attack segregation in Birmingham. Wyatt Tee Walker hands out a detailed blueprint of Project C- for “Confrontation.” The campaign's strategy is to put economic pressure on Birmingham's merchants, so organizers scheduled the protests to begin around the Easter season—the second biggest shopping period of the year. He spells out to the group the four stage plan;
- Begin nightly mass meeting to build strength and support. Organize small-scale sit-ins to draw attention to our desegregation platform.
- Organize a boycott of the downtown business section and begin slightly larger demonstrations.
- Increase the pressure with mass marches to both enforce the boycott and to defy unjust segregation laws resulting in mass arrests.
- If necessary, we will call on supporters outside of Birmingham to cripple the city under the combined pressure of publicity, economic boycott, and the burden of overflowing jails.
Walker explains that each stage must build upon the one before and to maintain momentum. Furthermore, participants must be prepared to put a thousand or more in jail and keep each jailgoer inside for five or six days at a time. The plan requires extensive preparation, perfect timing and loads of money.
As the Planning Committee, discuss the strengths and weaknesses of the plan. Record your conclusions.
Part Two: Project C is launched into action
The strategy committee decided to move forward and spends the next few months in painstaking planning. Abernathy and King focus on the necessary fundraising especially in the northern cities, Shuttlesworth continues building support among community leaders in Birmingham, and Walker compiles detailed notes on the distance between meeting location and sit-in targets, creates lists of willing participants and organizes training meetings. During the training meetings King instructs demonstrators on the philosophy of nonviolence.
Wednesday, 3 April 1963 marks the beginning of Project C. Starting their march from the Sixteenth Baptist Church, the headquarters of training meetings and strategy sessions, sixty-five activists marched silently to the stores of Loveman’s, Pizitz, Kress, Woolworth’s and Britt’s and sat at their segregated lunch counters. At four of the five stores, waitresses simply informed customers that they were closing and turned out the lights. Only one store Britt’s demanded that police arrest the protestors.
Your campaign is not off to a ground shattering first day. Recent developments include the following;
- As a result of recent city elections, a new mayor has been elected, Albert Boutwell. Many residents and leaders of the community, both white and black, suggest giving the new mayor a chance to reform the government.
- While numbers are slowly growing, volunteers to willingly go to jail are low.
- Although over 100 demonstrators are in jail as a result of their civil disobedience, the national and local news is ignoring the story.
- Robert F. Kennedy, the Attorney General, criticizes the campaign as “ill-timed.”
- The New York Times is giving the story back page coverage. The headlines read “Integration Drive Slows… Sit-Ins and a demonstration Plan Fail to Materialize… Demonstrations Fail to Develop.”
Your strategy committee meets again and discusses the following questions;
Should we call off Project C? Should we give new Mayor Boutwell a chance to make changes? If we continue our campaign, how do we recruit more demonstrators? How do we draw media attention to our actions and goals?
Discuss and record your decisions.
Part Three: The injunction
On 10 April, police commissioner Bull Connor and the Governor of Alabama, George Wallace, successfully convince state officials and a state court to support an injunction banning protest in Birmingham. The injunction ordered King and 133 others not to engage in or encourage protest activities: “parading, demonstrating, boycotting, trespassing and picketing,” including “conduct customarily known as ‘kneel-ins’ in churches.”
At first glance, this seems to be a huge set-back, but, it can work to your advantage. Why? Discuss and record your answer. (Hint: federalism)
Part Four: Good Friday, April 12th
A lawyer for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) from New York, Norman Amaker, arrived to provide legal advice. In Room 30 of the Gaston Hotel, just around the corner of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church, explained that while the injunction was unconstitutional, that would not keep the demonstrators and the strategy leaders out of jail. Since the Southern Christian Leadership Conference no longer had enough funds to post bail for those willing to go to jail, demonstrators could be held up to six months.
If King, Abernathy, Shuttlesworth, and Walker break the injunction and are arrested, they could no longer raise funds or organize bringing Project C to a halt. Furthermore, they may remain in jail for months while federal courts review the constitutionality of the state court order.
Discuss with your partners whether you should openly defy the injunction? Are there any alternatives?Record your decision.
Part Five: Off to jail
Examine the featured photo, of Ralph Abernathy and Martin Luther King, Jr., in Birmingham, AL, from 4/13/1963. Who is in the photo? How many people are observing the situation? What is their reaction to the scene? What is the reaction of King and Abernathy to the police officer? Would you describe the situation as confrontational? Why or why not?
Record your observations.