In 1963, Birmingham, Alabama civil rights activists invited Martin Luther King, Jr. to help them in their efforts to desegregate businesses and government facilities. Their strategy was non-violent direct action: Sit-ins at lunch counters, kneel-ins at churches, marches on city streets and business boycotts.
Things were not going well. There were not enough protestors, and the money was running out. Protesters who were arrested could not count on being quickly bailed out. They could be in jail for days or weeks.
King came to Birmingham and agreed to march and be arrested. Held in solitary confinement for nine days, he wrote his now famous Letter from a Birmingham Jail. His arrest attracted national attention and worry, but it did not result in more protesters.
Twelve days later, hundreds of Birmingham children – from first graders to high schoolers – joined the struggle. They left their schools to march to government buildings downtown. More than 600 were arrested. The next day there were more young marchers. This time, the Police Commissioner, Bull Conner, turned the dogs and fire hoses on them.
Journalists were there to capture photos of dogs attacking teenagers and people being blown off their feet into walls by high-pressure fire hoses. The photos went national and international. The publicity and outrage gave the activists the leverage they needed to compel the city to negotiate. “The Birmingham Truce Agreement” was finalized a few days later.
The violence Bull Connor used on the protestors in Birmingham on May 3, 1963 was nothing new. What he did and much worse had been done to Black men, women and children since 1619.1 But King knew that the country had never taken Black peoples’ word for the regime of violence they endured. White Americans needed to see it with their own eyes and be outraged. King said:
To cure injustices, you must expose them before the light of human conscience and the bar of public opinion. .. Injustices to the Negro must be brought out in the open where they cannot be evaded.2
On that day in 1963, Bull Connor enacted the horror in front of photographers and television crews. Everyone saw it.
In John, Jesus says he will be lifted up like the bronze serpent in the first reading. If by “lifted up” he is predicting his crucifixion, Jesus is predicting for himself the experience of horrific Roman violence. To imagine that a crucifixion is something else – including the fantasy that it is part of a loving God’s purpose or plan for anyone – is to save ourselves the burden of outrage by looking away and just not seeing it.
Next week: Lent 5B - “Saving Paradise”
Photo: Birmingham, AL on May 3, 1963. Photo by Charles Moore while on assignment for Life Magazine. (Birmingham News Archives.)
Including the use of dogs. There is a long history of Whites using dogs to attack or threaten Blacks. Fifty-seven years after Birmingham, in 2020, Trump threatened to use dogs against protesters in Washington, D.C.
David J. Garrow, Bearing the Cross: Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, (New York: Open Road Integrated Media, 2015) at 228.