Pillar of Fire Excerpt

Chapter 6

Tremors: L.A. to Selma

James Bevel was in Birmingham by then, summoned by Martin Luther King. With Diane Nash and their eight-month-old daughter, Bevel arrived from Greenwood just in time to preach at the April 12 mass meeting in place of King, who had submitted to solitary confinement that afternoon. The carefully planned Birmingham campaign was in crisis. Over the next week, Bevel and Nash pitched in behind King’s exacting administrator, Wyatt Walker, who labored to keep pace with chaos on many fronts — lobbying for some hint of public support from the Kennedys, cultivating reporters and distant celebrities, coaxing forward new jail volunteers, weeding out laggards and training the rest in nonviolence for the daily marches toward the forbidden landmarks of segregated commerce.

One of Walker’s tactical innovations presented an opportunity uniquely suited to Bevel. Walker demanded punctuality in the daily demonstrations until he noticed while fuming through the inevitable delays that news reporters often lumped Negro bystanders together with actual jail marchers in their crowd estimates. After that, Walker went against his nature to hold up the marches with deliberate tardiness, so that daily stories of growing crowds could disguise the dwindling number willing to accept jail. As the delays stretched past school hours, crowds began to fill with Bevel’s preferred recruits — Negro students.

To Bevel, looking past the arrests to the teenagers in the background, the flagging demonstrations already had accomplished the work of many months in the Mississippi Delta, where the bulk of the Negro population was widely dispersed on rural plantations: they had gathered a crowd. With Nash and student volunteers, he distributed handbills advertising a daily youth meeting at five o’clock, two hours before the regular seven o’clock mass meeting. There he preached on the meaning of the primal events downtown. His crowds grew so rapidly that Andrew Young helped run the youth meetings, and Dorothy Cotton, Young’s assistant in the SCLC citizenship program, led the singing. Following his practice in Mississippi, Bevel showed a film — an NBC White Paper on the Nashville student movement of 1960, which featured the stirring, climactic march of four thousand students that had desegregated Nashville’s libraries and lunch counters. By April 20, when King and Abernathy bonded out of the Birmingham jail, the youth meeting already surpassed the adult meeting in numbers. By April 23, when reporters again failed to ask President Kennedy about Birmingham at his press conference, the adult mass meeting first packed St. James Baptist Church because the students in a mass stayed over from their own session. By April 26, when the jail march was reduced to a handful, forcing Fred Shuttlesworth to play for time by announcing a massive new phase to begin on May 2, most of the jail volunteers who rose in the mass meeting came from the youth workshops.

King praised the children for their courage but told them to sit down. The Birmingham jail was no place for them. At the nightly strategy sessions, King and the other leaders flailed among themselves to devise a master stroke for May 2 that might hold off the movement’s extinction — a hunger strike or perhaps a jail march by Negro preachers in robes. No idea promised to crack the reserve of the outside world. Sensing their exhaustion from the other side, Birmingham’s white leaders rallied to the “velvet hammer” policy of firm but nonsensational resistance, and the local newspaper published an article of encouragement entitled “Greenwood Rolled with the Punch — And Won.” King’s sessions grew more rancorous. They were promising their followers and the national press nothing less than “a nonviolent D-Day” on May 2, but all the thunder of preachers and the honey of massed choirs pulled no more than forty or fifty volunteers from the pews, Wyatt Walker admitted. He bristled at Bevel’s claims that the youth meetings were spilling over into another church almost every day. Walker resented Bevel as an upstart, an intruder, and a free spirit who played loose with the chain of command.

Still, Walker was a man of results. Having come into Birmingham with only minority support from the Negro adults of Birmingham, and having delivered mostly suffering and disappointment since then, King and Shuttlesworth already were fending off internal pressures to evacuate gracefully. Backbiters predicted that the outsiders would leave Birmingham Negroes worse off than ever, with segregation hardened by the besieged anger of whites. Worse, Bevel’s proposal would leave the best of the next generation with criminal records, not to mention the psychological scars of wide-eyed children dragged into the inferno of a segregated jail. King’s host family in Birmingham, John and Deenie Drew of a prominent insurance family, resolved to send their children off to boarding school lest they get caught up in the trouble. Like most of King’s strongest supporters, they would have recoiled in horror had they known that Bevel aimed to use not just the older teenagers but also the junior high students on down to “the babies” just out of kindergarten. What dismayed much of the senior staff was not so much that King, smiling and noncommittal, insisted on hearing Bevel out, but that King seemed to respect the “voices” Bevel heard even when they urged him to subvert the damaged authority of Negro Birmingham through its children. “Against your Mama,” Bevel told King, “you have a right to make this witness.”

When the doors of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church opened shortly after one o’clock on Thursday, May 2, a line of fifty teenagers emerged two abreast, singing. The waiting police detail hauled them into jail wagons, as usual, and only the youth of the demonstrators distinguished the day until a second line emerged, then a third and many more. Children as young as six years old held their ground until arrested. Amid mounting confusion, police commanders called in school buses for jail transport and sent reinforcements to intercept stray lines that slipped past them toward the downtown business district. On the first day, nearly a thousand marching children converted first the Negro adults. Not a few of the onlookers in Kelly Ingram Park were dismayed to see their own disobedient offspring in the line, and the conflicting emotions of centuries played out on their faces until some finally gave way. One elderly woman ran alongside the arrest line, shouting, “Sing, children, sing!”

With the jails swamped by nightfall, Bull Connor ordered a massed phalanx of officers to disperse rather than arrest any demonstrators King might send the next day — intimidate them, shoo them away. When more than a thousand new children turned out in high-spirited, nonviolent discipline, giving no ground, frustration and hatred erupted under Connor’s command. Police dogs tore into the march lines, and high-powered fire hoses knocked children along the pavement like tumbleweed. News photographs of the violence seized millions of distant eyes, shattering inner defenses. In Birmingham, the Negro principal of Parker High School desperately locked the gates from the outside to preserve a semblance of order, but students trampled the chain-link fence to join the demonstrations.

King, preaching at night to a serial mass meeting that spilled from one packed church to another, urged crowds to remember the feel of history among them. He cast aside his innate caution along with criticism and worry over the children in jail, shouting, “Now yesterday was D-Day, and tomorrow will be Double-D Day!” From Shuttlesworth’s old pulpit, Bevel cried out in playful hyperbole that they would finish off Birmingham before Tuesday by placing every Negro young and old in jail so that he could be “back in Mississippi, chopping cotton.” Bevel did not make his deadline, but nonviolent Negroes did overflow the jails and flood the forbidden downtown streets within a week. By Monday, May 6, the sudden conversion gushed from child to adult until no fewer than 2,500 demonstrators swamped the Birmingham jail, and King welcomed in awe the tangible sensation of history spilling over at frenzied mass meetings of four times that number.

Something primal welled up the same day in a Los Angeles courtroom. Defense lawyer Earl Broady faltered while cross-examining Officer Lee Logan about the mayhem at the Muslim Temple No. 27 in April of 1962. “Now this ‘male Negro’ business, this is significant to you, isn’t it?” asked Broady in a whisper, his face suddenly clouded. “’Male Negroes,’” he repeated. When Logan replied that the term was merely descriptive of the brawlers that violent night, Broady tried to resume his planned examination but stopped again. “You called them niggers while you were in this fight with them, didn’t you?” he blurted out.

“I did not,” Logan replied.

Broady asked for time to compose himself, but he called for a bench conference as soon as Logan testified that his first sight at the crime scene was “several male Negroes” fighting with officers a block south of the Muslim temple. “Your Honor, I believe these defendants should be referred to exactly the same as if they were Caucasians,” said Broady. “This officer wouldn’t refer to male Jews. He wouldn’t refer to male Irishmen. He wouldn’t refer to male Swedes. He wouldn’t refer to male Caucasians.”

Judge David Coleman hushed stirrings in the courtroom and spoke gently to Broady, whom he had known for years, observing that race was a standard designation in all police reports. “This issue has been made by the defense and not by the People,” said the judge, who went on to remind Broady that the defense lawyers had tried to insert a racial standard by objecting, for instance, to the all-white jury. (On that matter, Judge Coleman had assured Broady privately that the all-white jury was probably best because most Negro jurors were too emotional to be objective about such a sensational case.) Broady argued that the drumbeat repetition of generic racial phrases was far from neutral in …

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