By Sam Ostrow
Close your eyes. Imagine a little girl. This little girl is trapped in a small room surrounded by other people who, like her, have been arrested. She is likely terrified. And she is only in there because she stood up for what she believed in.
Now imagine the man who put the little girl in that room. And he put her there only because he stood up for what he believed in.
Most people consider long-time Birmingham Police Chief Eugene “Bull” Connor as evil, or at least unquestionably wrong. “The villain,” says Laura Anderson, archivist at the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute.
“He is the excuse for lots of other people’s bigotry. He is just the ringleader.”
But others believe the most pivotal events of the Civil Rights Movement would not have transpired without him. His legacy may be for using intimidation tactics against non-violent activists, but his inadvertent contributions to end segregation cannot be overlooked.
“Dr. Martin Luther King and others have said Bull Connor may have been the best friend the Civil Rights Movement ever had,” said former U.S. Attorney Doug Jones. “Because of Bull Connor, people took notice.”
Jones was the prosecutor who reopened the case against two of the 16th Street Baptist Church bombers decades after the crime. He argues that Connor’s more extreme measures were pivotal to the Movement’s progress.Connor hadn’t acted the way he had, we don’t know if Birmingham would have had the same success.”
Connor was an influential member of his community who had, through Alabama politics, gained a great deal of power and was not shy about wielding it. Bull Connor (1897-1973) served as Commissioner of Public Safety in Birmingham from 1937-1952 and 1957-1963 and was a delegate to the Democratic National Convention for the state of Alabama. A Ku Klux Klan member in his early 20s, Connor gained notoriety as a successful sports broadcaster in the 1920s and ‘30s. Connor’s popularity culminated in a representative seat in the Alabama House, and he led the famous 1948 Democratic National Convention southern states walkout that nearly cost Harry Truman his reelection.
During Birmingham protests in 1963, Bull Connor’s measures to defend segregation were notably violent. When the Freedom Riders stopped in Birmingham, Connor allowed a mob of the KKK to beat the Riders with relative impunity for 15 minutes. And when asked why officers did not report to the scene, said because it was Mother’s Day, officers were spending time with their moms.
Perhaps most memorable because of their horrific nature were his actions in response to the Children’s Crusade — unleashing police dogs on nonviolent protesters, many of them children, and blasting them with fire hoses. These graphic events gave photographers and journalists an important tool to convey the gravity of what was happening in a way that stirred others to action.
The Children’s Crusade cast the city into the global spotlight, where the images of fire hoses and dogs outraged people around the world. This attention reinvigorated the civil rights movement after it had faltered after Martin Luther King, Jr. and his colleagues failed in their efforts to enforce desegregation in Albany, Ga.
“That was really the tipping point in a tipping year,” Pulitzer Prize-winning author and Civil Rights historian Taylor Branch told the PBS program “Religion & Ethics NewsWeekly.” Thanks to the publicity of Birmingham’s summer of 1963, Connor became the face of bigotry in the segregated South, and was an easy figure to hate — and to rally against. By providing a common enemy for activists, he galvanized their fight for Civil Rights.
Even today, members of the Birmingham community consider the police commissioner one of their most infamous citizens.
“He was a complete bigot,” said Veronica Wiggins, director of operations at Cornerstone Christian School in Birmingham. “One of the worst people this city had produced. We have pictures hanging of him in the church that burned down next door, Woodlawn United Methodist Church, and those need to be taken down. Now.”
The attributes that made Connor so hated, may have also been those which were most helpful in furthering Civil Rights efforts.
“I think that Bull Connor was not a very bright man, and had no clue what he was doing and up against,” said Prosecutor Jones. “He was acting out of emotion and bigotry, and it played right into the hands of Dr. King and Reverend Shuttlesworth and others.”
Most people agree Bull Connor may have not been the best person, but he was a necessary evil. Without him, the Civil Rights movement may not have succeeded. In the defense of the institution he ardently believed in, he contributed to its undoing. After his actions in response to the Freedom Riders and the Children’s Crusade, he was ousted by the city government from his position as Commissioner of Public Safety, through a ruling from the Alabama Supreme Court.
Anderson said the complicity of the community is what kept Connor in office.
“This man had such tight control on Birmingham that they had to change the government just to get rid of him.”