Martin Luther King Jr. composed his "A Letter from the Birmingham Jail." King's letter responded to a statement written by several Alabama clergymen who asserted that King's methods were both "unwise and untimely." They branded him an "outside agitator" who should not be advocating the breaking of the law. King responded with his letter which politely referred to Biblical, classical, and early American figures to counter the arguments of the clergy.
"A Letter from the Birmingham Jail"
Over 700 blacks, many of them children, were arrested while taking part in a nonviolent demonstration in Birmingham. One leader said the demonstrations would continue "until we run out of children."
The Birmingham protests
President Kennedy met with a delegation from the Americans for Democratic Action who asked him to intervene in Alabama. But Kennedy dodged. “There’s no federal law that we could pass that could do anything about that. What law could you pass?”
House Judiciary Subcommittee No. 5 presided over by Emanuel Celler, chairman of both the full committee and the subcommittee, began hearings on 89 civil rights proposals—41 from Democrats, 49 from Republicans [sic]. In total, there were 22 days of hearings between May 8 and August 2.
Testimony before House Judiciary Subcommittee No. 5 on May 8 included statements from Celler, ranking member McCulloch, Representative John V. Lindsay (R-NY), and Senator Kenneth Keating (R-NY).
Dirksen’s appointment book showed meetings at the White House at 9:30 a.m. and in Senate Majority Leader Mike Mansfield’s (D-MT) office at 11:00.
Testimony before House Judiciary Subcommittee No. 5 continued and included statements from Senator Jacob Javits (R-NY) and Representatives Charles S. Joelson (D-NJ), William Fitts Ryan (D-NY), and Robert McClory (R-IL).
Five weeks of racial tension temporarily ended in Birmingham with an agreement providing for partial and gradual desegregation of public facilities. But in the 10 weeks following, there were 758 demonstrations with 13,786 people arrested in 75 cities in the South.
The Birmingham chapter of the civil rights struggle proved crucial in preparing the political and legislative ground for action. Andrew Young, a principal assistant to Martin Luther King Jr., made the point forcefully twenty-five years later during a roundtable discussion of the demonstrations. ". . . [M]ost of you kind of folk think that bills are written by legislative assistants," Young remarked. "The truth is that although I never wrote so much as a memo or made a speech or took part in a consultation on the 1964 or 1965 Civil Rights Acts, yet we were very consciously writing those bills. The demonstrations in Birmingham were specifically designed as measures to educate the United States on the dynamics of race relations and racial segregation."
Bombs destroyed the home of the Reverend A.D. King, Martin Luther King's younger brother. A third bomb blew a hole in the Birmingham's integration movement's headquarters at the Gaston Motel, setting off a violent riot.
"WSB-TV newsfilm clip of bombed ruins of the A.G. Gaston Motel"
President Kennedy sent 3,000 troops to positions near Birmingham to keep peace.
Testimony before House Judiciary Subcommittee No. 5 continued and included statements from Milton Semer, general counsel, Housing and Home Finance Agency, and Richard Scammon, director of the Bureau of the Budget.
Testimony before House Judiciary Subcommittee No. 5 continued and included statements from Berl Bernhard, staff director of the Civil Rights Commission and Hobart Taylor, a member of the President's Committee on Equal Employment Opportunity.
Attorney General Robert Kennedy directed the Justice Department staff to begin drafting a comprehensive civil rights bill. Of the 955 lawyers in the Washington office of the department, only 10 were black.
President Kennedy met with his brother, Justice Department official Burke Marshall, speech writer Ted Sorenson, and political aides Kenneth O’Donnell and Lawrence O’Brien to discuss whether and how to offer a civil rights bill. Their early proposal would outlaw segregation in public accommodations, protect the right to demonstrate, and desegregate public schools.
Testimony before House Judiciary Subcommittee No. 5 continued and included statements from Edmond F. Rovner, civic affairs director, International Union of Electrical Workers.
Testimony before House Judiciary Subcommittee No. 5 continued and included statements from Herman Edelsberg representing the Anti-Defamation League, B'nai B'rith; Timothy Jenkins representing the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee; Clarence Mitchell of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People; Aaron E. Henry, president of the NAACP Mississippi State Conference; and Roy H. Millenson representing the American Jewish Committee.
Dirksen addressed the civil rights matter for the first time in public in a radio and television broadcast to his constituents in Illinois, "A Visit with Abraham Lincoln." He said that Lincoln would be disappointed with the lack of equality in America.
You see it today in the racial tensions that bother us in so many places. It takes on a dangerous character, and it flares up day after day, and it becomes a challenge, I think, to our sense of compassion and to our sense of fairness and equity for which you [speaking to a bust of Lincoln perched on his desk] were so richly noted, and which you exemplified to the very limit.
Testimony before House Judiciary Subcommittee No. 5 continued and included statements from John P. Roche, chairman of the Americans for Democratic Action.
Vice President Lyndon Johnson said the following in a speech in Gettysburg PA:
One hundred years ago the slave was freed. One hundred years later, the Negro remains in bondage to the color of his skin. The Negro today asks justice. We do not answer him—we do not answer those who lie beneath this soil—when we reply to the Negro by asking, “Patience.” It is empty to plead that the solution to the dilemmas of the present rests on the hands of the clock.
After debating the wisdom of introducing a strong civil rights bill for two weeks, President Kennedy decided to go ahead.