In this unusual political year, there has been an effort by some in high places to make Black History Month a celebration of white contributions to racial progress. But not all white contributions have been toward progress. This is the third in a series of biographical sketches that present a different narrative of historic events.
We have all heard the phrase “as seen on television” to sell some product or other. In a certain sense, the civil rights movement succeeded in part because it was “seen on television.”
As Martin Luther King said at one point, “We are here to say to the white men that we no longer will let them use clubs on us in dark corners. We’re going to make them do it in the glaring light of television.”
Through television, many Americans, even those hardened by racial prejudice, were shocked to see the treatment of black people in the South. They would have probably been equally shocked if they had seen what was happening in segregated neighborhoods in northern cities. Cities like Los Angeles, Chicago, Philadelphia and Milwaukee all had their Bull Connors, each leaving a legacy of institutional racism that has been very difficult to eradicate.
For the leaders of civil rights movement struggling to gain traction, television delivered a gift from heaven: Eugene “Bull” Connor, the police commissioner of Birmingham, Alabama. As the cruelest person in the cruelest city, Connor provided precious footage of white brutality, including the use of clubs, fire hoses and dogs against children.
Without television, Bull Connor would have been just another racist police chief, one of many throughout the country. Although his moment of fame came in the early 1960s, Connor had been happily doing the dirty work since the late 1930s.
In the late 1930s, because it was an important industrial city, Birmingham was also the center of left-wing politics in the South. In 1938, it hosted the Southern Conference for Human Rights. Connor and his cops broke up the conference because black and white attendees were sitting together. This led to one of the early boycotts of Alabama.
On the same day that the conference was raided, in nearby Mississippi, a white mob lynched a black man, one of thousands of such acts of terror in the 19th and 20th century South.
Ten years later, in 1948, Connor and his police force provided security and fanned the flames in the same conference hall that they had raided, as the Dixiecrats voted to bolt the Democratic Party because of President Truman’s civil rights efforts. One of the Dixiecrats biggest concerns was proposed anti-lynching legislation.
In that same year, Connor was a losing candidate for governor of Alabama. The core theme of that campaign was that white southerners “had done too much for blacks, and the time had come to get tough.”
But it would be another fifteen years before Connor would take his star turn on 1960s television. In a movement premised on non-violence, he sought to provoke violence, and then to meet it with extreme repression. For the first time, that violent repression would now be captured for the world to see.
Dr. King said, with respect to Connor’s provocations, “He was an expert in that. He had maps of the heart of violence.”
Connor, and those like him, had a goal: to undermine the moral power of non-violence. It was a goal that they partly achieved. In frustration, Dr. King would say, “Oh, the press was so noble in its applause and so noble in its praise that I was saying be non-violent toward Bull Connor.”
Although television news and newspapers carried these stories, the press also tried to “balance” their coverage with stories of progress and, as always up to the present, to search for the moderate middle at a time when that middle didn’t exist.
In the end, Bull Connor and those like him mobilized enough black people and alienated enough whites to provide the fuel for the groundbreaking civil and voting rights legislation that was to emerge. But they also pushed non-violence to the breaking point. They successfully opened the door for the dead-end of the black power movement, and for a new generation of leaders like Stokely Carmichael and Rap Brown who gave the Bull Connors of America the kind of adversary that they preferred.
We have been pretty much frozen there ever since.
Editor’s note on the use of terms. In this series, terms are used in a very specific manner.
“Racism”/”racist” is limited to examples of what has been defined as “scientific racism,” the belief that one race is inherently superior/inferior to others, and, the current use, a power relationship in which one group dominates another, as in “white supremacy.” Racism in this context is typically a system.
“Bigotry” is used to describe group or individual beliefs that stereotype or demean another group. In this sense, bigotry is not limited to the group(s) that wield power over others.
“Racialism” is a term that describes practices intended to pit groups against one another, even in the absence of the individual being a bigot or racist. Racialism is widespread in our political life. For example, in 1964 Barry Goldwater ran ads with a picture of a white worker (“fired”) and a black worker (“hired,”) while in 1980, Jimmy Carter implied that Reagan would re-enslave black people.
As the profiles in this series demonstrate, the boundaries between these terms are fluid, and the outcomes are invariably negative.