Bull and ‘Bombingham’
Reviewed by George Littleton
Vol. 13, No. 3, 1991, pp. 27-28
Until Justice Rolls Down: The Birmingham Church Bombing Case by Frank Sikora. (Tuscaloosa University of Alabama Press, 1991. 175 pp. $22.75).
Bull Connor by William A. Nunnelley. (Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1991. 225 pp. $19.95).
On September 15. 1963, in Birmingham. Alabama, there occurred “the most sickening act of terrorism” of the civil rights movement in the American South. On an otherwise-quiet Sunday morning a bomb exploded in the basement of Birmingham’s Sixteenth Street Baptist Church, killing four young girls.
The church bombing was the deadly culmination of a summer-long turmoil over the court-ordered desegregation of Birmingham’s all-white public schools. Although just five black children were scheduled to enroll in those schools, Birmingham’s pro-segregation power structure, led by Public Safety Commissioner Bull Connor, reacted violently.
In April 1963, following a failed attempt to desegregate the public life of Albany, Georgia, Martin Luther King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference turned its attention toward Birmingham as a symbol of hard-line Southern racism. Under the leadership of King and Birmingham minister Fred Shuttlesworth, thousands of blacks raffled throughout the spring, and gathered daily to march from the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church.
Connor’s all-white fire and police departments grew increasingly anxious over this black presence in Birmingham’s streets and arrested King and other black leaders. It was at this time that King wrote his “Letter From the Birmingham Jail.”
During the first week of May, Connor ordered the use of high-pressure firehoses and police dogs against the demonstrators, and even deployed a police department anti-dot tank. The familiar images of these encounters erased once and for all Birmingham’s image as the “Pittsburgh of the South.” A few weeks later, just as school was starting, the city cemented its image as “Bombingham,” the most violent and segregated city in the South.
From these days of violence, courage, and cataclysmic social change, the bombed church and Bull Connor became symbols of all that was wrong with antiquated segregation codes and racial hatred. Two recent books from the University of Alabama Press examine the events leading up to these days and their aftermath.
In Bull Connor, William A. Nunnelley shows us Theophilus Eugene “Bull” Connor as a man who had much in common with other Deep South politicians of his day. From humble origins, Connor first gained attention as a colorful radio announcer for the Birmingham Barons, a minor league baseball team. Propelled by this notoriety into the public eye, he ran for a seat in the 1934 Alabama House of Representatives. He won the seat, although he said at the time he had “no more idea of being elected than I did of beating Lou Gehrig out for first base with the Yankees.”
Connor ran as a reformer, opposing higher taxes of any sort and strict civil service laws, emphasizing merit over political favoritism.
Nunnelley’s book details Connor’s eventual alliance with the “Big Mules” and his rise in the political ranks over a thirty-year career, how he survived an early sexual scandal, and how his prejudices gave way to violent efforts to uphold local white customs in the face of a changing legal landscape.
The book’s most absorbing description is how Connor, unlike wily Albany, Georgia, police chief Laurie Pritchett, chose to respond violently to demonstrators in his city.
The effect of these tactics was perhaps best summarized by President John Kennedy who, upon viewing television reports of the fire hose-police dog incidents, said, “The civil rights movement should thank God for Bull Connor. He helped it as much as Abraham Lincoln.”
Connor, then, was largely responsible for setting the volatile racial mood which choked Birmingham in that summer of 1963. Until Justice Rolls Down: The Birmingham Church Bombing Case details the aftermath of those demonstrations and white resistance to them, which ended in the gruesome death of four innocent children.
Sikora, whose book credits include Selma Lord, Selma, only sketches the turbulent historical background which is fully drawn in Nunnelley’s book. What Sikora gives instead is a complete examination of the bombing itself–including portraits of the slain girls and their families–and an introduction to a young Alabama law student, Bill Baxley, who on the day of the bombing vowed to become a prosecutor and convict the guilty party.
Using court records, FBI reports, oral interviews, and newspaper accounts, Sikora shows how Baxley followed a decade-old trail to fulfill that promise. Hundreds of FBI and Justice Department officials descended on Birmingham in 1963, and traced hundreds of leads, but failed to get a conviction.
It took Baxley, who in 1970, at the age of twenty-eight, bad been elected Alabama’s attorney general, to reopen the case and move it forward. With the help of ace investigator Bob Eddy and women associated with the 1960s Ku Klux Klan and their families–especially Elizabeth Hood Cobbs–Baxley succeeded in having indicted and convicted Robert Chambliss, then seventy-three years old, of the heinous deed. Chambliss went to prison in 1977, fourteen years after the bombing, and died there, still maintaining his innocence.
Sikora’s book reads like a detective story, which in a way it is, and is hard to put down. Nunnelley’s book, meanwhile, is a more sober, less passionate analysis of a man whom he presents as neither saint nor sinner, but simply a power-hungry product of his time who feared and opposed racial equality. Together, the books paint a picture of a city which was torn apart one summer by events that Sikora suggests led directly to the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
The University of Alabama Press has done readers and scholars a great service by bringing these books out at the same time.
George Littleton is publisher of the Eclectic Observer, a weekly newspaper in Elmore county, Alabama.