Through Angels Eyes
A survival story from the civil rights movement's most explosive time and place: Birmingham, 1963.

What was Martin Luther King’s involvement in the Birmingham campaign?


In late 1962 Birmingham Baptist minister and civil rights campaigner Reverend Fred Shuttlesworth invited Dr Martin Luther King, Jr to come to Birmingham and join him in major campaign to desegregate the city. In his letter to king, Shutlesworth urged, "If you come to Birmingham, you will not only gain prestige, but really shake the country. If you win in Birmingham, as Birmingham goes, so goes the nation."

King had recently emerged from a campaign in Albany, Georgia which had failed to realize the goals that had been set for it. He saw Birmingham as a way to reinvigorate the civil rights movement in general and his own reputation in particular. In order to avoid the errors of Albany, King and his Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) associates focused on narrowly defined goals for Birmingham. These goals included the desegregation of Birmingham's downtown stores, fair hiring practices in shops and city employment, the reopening of public parks, and the creation of a bi-racial committee to oversee the desegregation of Birmingham's public schools.

Martin Luther King gave motivational speeches and marched on the front lines of the campaign that began in early April of 1963. Then, on Friday, April 12th (Good Friday), King, along with 50 others, was arrested and thrown in jail. It was during his 8 day incarceration that he wrote his famous Letter from a Birmingham Jail.

After his release from jail, King took a backseat as the Children’s Crusade, orchestrated by James Bevel, saw thousands of black school children taking to the streets to face the fire hoses and police dogs of Commissioner of Public Safety Bull Connor. The crisis situation that resulted forced the white business leaders of Birmingham to agree to most of the protestor’s demands. On May 10, Fred Shuttlesworth and Martin Luther King told reporters that they had an agreement from the City of Birmingham to desegregate lunch counters, restrooms, drinking fountains and fitting rooms within 90 days, and to hire blacks in stores as salesmen and clerks.

The next day a bomb destroyed the Motel where King had been staying.

Martin Luther King features in ‘Through Angel’s, the first person account of a 13 year old Black girl as she experiences the pivotal events of the Birmingham campaign in the Spring of 1963.

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"...confused. I went down to ol' Miss Hattie's place so she could sort this mess out for me. Miss Hattie knew everythin' 'bout everyone that ever was an' she had a way 'bout her that jus' made ya understan' things. Why, I reckon she was as wise as ol' King Solomon hisself. ..."

"...bus boycott in Montgomery, a man who was at the front a' the movement, leadin' it on, showin' the way. He was a man whose name I never heard before that day. A man whose name was to become as familiar as my own. A man called Martin Luther King, Junior. ..."

"... to form the word in my mouth. When it did come out, it wasn't much more than a painful whimper. "Ronny." "You ever heard a' Martin Lutha' King?" I asked Miss Hattie dreamily. It was a Sunday afternoon an' I was propped up on the railin' a' Miss Hattie's porch balcony. The sun was ..."
"... I knew she'd have the answers I needed. "Where'd you learn 'bout Doctor King?" Miss Hattie replied quickly, like she was surprised at my question. She was sittin' in her rockin' chair, rockin' back an' forth like she didn't have a care in the world. "What you mean, Miss Hattie?" She was ..."
"... too. Miss Hattie smiled in an understandin' kinda way. "Oh, we're talKing 'bout the same fella all right. The Reverend Doctor Martin Luther King, Junior. But he ain't no doctor a' medicine an' he ain't no SNICK man, neither." Miss Hattie went on to tell me that there are people who can ..."
"...Miss Hattie went on to tell me that there are people who can become doctors of other things than healin' folks. Doctor King was a doctor a' religion. Even though she explained it real good, it still seemed strange to me. A doctor who wasn't no doctor at all. I was still muddlin' over that one when she went on to explain that Doctor King wasn't a part a' SNICK, but he ..."
"...big differences. This is goin' to be a revolution that comes from the Black folks themselves. An', instead a' using guns an' bullets, they're goin' to use love an' understandin'. An' instead a' lookin' to White leaders like Mister Lincoln, we've got our own leaders right here, like Doctor King." ..."
"... kids wouldn't even care 'bout. Maybe I could share my feelin's with him, after all. Anyway, it didn't hurt to try. "You know 'bout SNICK an' Doctor King?" I asked hopefully. "Sure, I do, girl," he said. "I know all 'bout them folks. But SNICK an' King are a waste a' time, girl—like a ..."
"... "Sure, I do, girl," he said. "I know all 'bout them folks. But SNICK an' King are a waste a' time, girl—like a spit in the ol' Pacific Ocean. They ain't got no power. No, White folks got that. An', if we want it, we gotta take it. An' we ain't gonna get it from sittin' down at lunch counters." ..."

"... "That's what I figured," he said, with jus' the start of a smile. Then, lookin' at the Reverend, he continued. "All right, Mister Walker, we'll support your boycott, an', yes, I will come to your meeting' to listen to this King fella. But, I still ain't decided on this sit-in bidness." ..."
"... what sorta fool thing I'm gettin' involved with. Don't mean he's gonna go along with it." "But Jimmy," I said, "Daddy's goin' to listen to Martin Lutha' King. I reckon he can help Daddy to understan'." Since my talk with Miss Hattie that time, I heard some good things 'bout that man. "I ..."
"...As it turned out, gettin' away from the house that Friday was easier than I thought. Daddy's meetin' to listen to Martin Lutha' King was on that same night. After some talk, he'd decided to take Mama along with him, after all. So, when I suggested that I stay over at the Reynolds house, they both thought that was a good idea. Mama did say that Amie's folks must be gettin' sick a' ..."
"...I jus' stood there, wishin' I was someplace else. As the speaker carried on, his talk 'bout revolution, guns an' police brutality got even stronger. I tried to switch off to it, tried to imagine what was happenin' at that other meetin'—hopin' Daddy an' Mama was takin' to Doctor King's words better than I was to this fella's. ..."
"... * * Daddy was softenin'. It was slow at first, but me an' Jimmy was able to pick up on it right off. Listenin' to Doctor King on Friday had seemed to make him think more seriously 'bout what was goin' on. We noticed it when we was sittin' at the dinner table on Sunday evenin'. "How'd ..."
"... evenin'. "How'd that meetin' go, Daddy?" Jimmy asked. "Most interestin' son," Daddy replied. Jimmy pressed for more. "What'd Doctor King talk 'bout?" "He spoke 'bout lots a' things, Jimmy," Daddy said, thoughtfully, "but, I'll tell you one thing that stood out to me. He said ..."
"... do you reckon, Daddy?" Jimmy asked. "I don't know yet, son," Daddy replied. "That Doctor King had some fine soundin' words, but we're talkin' bout Birmin'ham. That man ain't from here. I ain't sure he knows what he's got himself in for." "It worked for him in Montgomery," Jimmy ..."
"... bad 'bout what he's plannin' for Birmin'ham." This was news to me. Doctor King was here to make our lot better. Who'd be foolish enough to speak against him. Jimmy must've been thinkin' the same thing, because he asked, "What do ya mean, Daddy?" "Folks ain't too hot 'bout this Project C a' ..."
"... mean, Daddy?" "Folks ain't too hot 'bout this Project C a' his. Some say the timings all wrong, what with the elections goin' on. Some others reckon he should be workin' more with our own church leaders. Anyway, that Doctor King's been rufflin' a few feathers 'round here." "Gonna give him ..."
"...this jus' for the sake of it," Daddy said. "I'm jus' doin' what I reckon is best for this family. Now, you know what I've already told you. That don't bear repeatin' now. But, I reckon there ain't no harm in the two a' you goin' along to Doctor King's church meetings. But you make sure that's all it is. Got me, son?" ..."
"...told me the protests was buildin' up slowly. Right now they was jus' feelin' out the White leaders a' the city, or, as Jimmy put it, seein' how the White bosses would take to this uppitiness from the good niggers a' Birmin'ham. At the same time, Jimmy said, Doctor King an' others was goin' 'round to church meetin's, buildin' up support for the bigger demonstrations that was gonna follow. ..."
"... blood that was gonna be spilled would be our own. This guy sure excited the crowd that night, but, when I realized Doctor King wasn't gonna be there, I felt kinda let down. I heard so much 'bout him that I was dyin' to finally see the man. Well, anyway, that Bevel guy did tell us that he'd ..."
"...Well, anyway, that Bevel guy did tell us that he'd organized a special meetin' for that Thursday night. It was 'specially for school students, an' he promised that Doctor King would definitely be a speaker at that meetin'. When I heard that, I squeezed Jimmy's hand. My brother looked down at me an' winked. We both knew where we'd be that Thursday night. ..."
"...Parks. Now, Mister Newton was fillin' us in on all a' those organizations with the long names—SNCC an' SCLC—an' what they was preparin' for our city. Most a' the others in the class had never heard a' those outfits. They was jus' as much in the dark 'bout Doctor King an' Mister Shuttlesworth, too. Seemed like the only ones who was up on it was Amie an' me. A'course, Ronny Jackson would've known all 'bout it too. But Ronny wasn't there. He hadn't shown up since he'd walked out on me the other day. ..."
"...I ever heard. It was the sound of a leader. Listenin' to him, lettin' his words soak into your mind, gave you the feelin' that things was gonna be all right—that with him at the wheel, this train was gonna get to where it was goin'. I let Doctor King's words fill my mind, grateful to have them crowd out all my other thoughts. Pretty soon, I was caught in his spell: ..."
"... Again, he paused. I thought 'bout hatred an' three images came into my mind—the girl in the candy store, the ancient White man in the court house an' Ronny Jackson. Was Doctor King gonna show me that Ronny, my Ronny, was no better than those other two? I held my breath as he continued: ..."

"...down my face, my armpits becomin' damp, an' my eyes squintin' jus' to see. Standin' there, I thought 'bout that other day, long ago, under the same burnin' sun, when Daddy'd stopped to cool the heat from offa me. Then I remembered somethin' Daddy'd told us he'd heard Doctor King say—that we needed to take the back street beatin's that'd been happenin' to Black folks an' put 'em on center stage, for the whole world to see. Well, when I looked 'round me today, I saw a bunch a' reporters with microphones an' cameras. It was then that I ..."
"...but then I guess I sorta took 'em for granted. To hear people talkin' 'bout the very things that all Black folks carry inside but up until now never shared with others was an amazin' experience. It brought us all closer together—made us stronger. Sittin' there, listenin' to Doctor King, Mister Ab'nathy an' Fred—lettin' their words pick you up—made ya feel like it didn't matter how many dogs ol' Bull Connor had, we was still gonna win. ..."
"... It was Jim Bevel who stepped up to the podium. From his first word, I knew this night was gonna be different. There was no nice introduction. No warmin' us up for Doctor King. No wastin' time. Instead, he grabbed hold a the microphone an' spoke jus' one short, sharp word to get our attention. ..."
"...a decision which is far more important than whether or not to march for your own freedom. So I say to you, if you're old enough to belong to a church, then you're old enough to act on your faith—to do what's right. No one, not me, not Doctor King, not even your parents have a right to stop you doin' that!" ..."
"...I couldn't get to sleep that night. I had too much goin' on in my head. The fear a' marchin' against the police dogs an' fire hoses was jus' the start. Jim had gone on to tell us that Doctor King an' Mister Ab'nathy was in jail, had been for nearly a week. While he was in jail, Doctor King had read somethin' that some White preachers'd written 'bout him. He wrote a reply to them, an' Jim had read some of it out to us. They'd said he had ..."
"...back a' Ronny Jackson's head in the crowd up ahead a' me. Ronny at one of our meetin's. It didn't make no sense. But, then none a' this made sense. Everythin' seemed upside down. The adults tellin' the kids that they was gonna have to do the protestin'. Doctor King sittin' in jail. An' Ronny at our meeting. How much crazier was this gonna get? Yet, wasn't havin' Ronny at our meetin's the sorta thing I been prayin' for? If only he could hear from Jim or Doctor King himself, I figured, surely he'd see that this was the ..."
"...face a' this, I noticed that I wasn't afraid. My nervousness had all but left me when we'd entered into the downtown area an' now, seein' these White adults with all this unexplained hatred for school kids they'd never seen before, I could only feel one thing—pity. I remembered Doctor Kings' speech 'bout hatred 'n what it can do to the hater, 'n I felt sorry for these people—these people who thought they was so much better than us 'n yet who had been blinded by their own hatred—a hatred that was jus' as unexplainable as it was undeserved. ..."

"..."Well, like I said, they was worried 'bout you. But you know what? After we'd talked some, 'n your Daddy'd told me 'bout what he'd heard from Doctor King, he said he could see that what was happenin' here was different than in our day. An' he agreed that you'd done what was right—what he'd expect a' his child, he'd said." She looked down into my eyes now. "Actually, he was real proud of you when I told ..."
"... have to die?" "Girl, it ain't gonna end. White folks been killin' us for no reason since slave days. That's the way it is. An' girl, don't matter how often you get your arm broke or how many a' those Doctor Kings you have marchin' 'round causin' a fuss. Ain't gonna do nothin'." I didn't want ..."

"...had gone out for 'bout half an hour, leavin' the class with some sums to do. When he came back, he had a smile all over his face. He stood in front a' the class an' announced that at 'bout lunch time a peace agreement'd been signed 'tween Doctor King an' the other Black leaders an' the White leaders a' the city. Everythin' that Doctor King'd demanded he'd got, Ronny said, from desegregatin' the lunch counters to the droppin' of all charges against the protestors. ..."
"... "We got bidness to do." "What's up?" Ronny asked. "Serious, Ronny," the other one spoke now. "Klan's been doin' some serious crap, man. Bombed King's house, bombed the Gaston. We gotta do somethin' 'bout those fascist pigs, boy!" I looked at Ronny. Now's the time Ronny, I thought. ..."
"...Doctor King's hous'd been bombed, the whole place smashed to bits an' him an' his family only jus' scrapin' away with their lives. An' some motel owned by a Black man'd been bombed, too. The room that Doctor King an' the others'd been usin' to hold their meetings'd been totally destroyed. ..."
"...tried to think 'bout other things, to keep my min' busy so it wouldn't haunt me. But, no matter how much I tried to concentrate on Miss Hattie, on the future life that me an' Ronny'd dreamed up earlier or even on that first meetin' when I heard Doctor King speak, no matter how hard I tried to think on these things, my mind jus' couldn't escape the image a' poor Josiah Reeby bein' dragged away into a pitch black night, an' the expectation that I was gonna be next. Ronny finally spoke. His voice was slow an' deliberate. ..."

"...I didn't talk no more 'bout wanting to go to him. Didn't really talk 'bout him at all. I knew if I was gonna get through this time, I had to try to focus on other things—my school work, my Sataday teachin' job, the latest news on what Doctor King was up to. So, that's what I did. It helped me get through the days, but the nights was another story. I would lie in bed, hopin' that sleep'd come quickly, but it never would. Instead, I would see an image a' Ronny on the ground, his face covered ..."
"...I leaned back against the wall an' thought 'bout what it could be like. I imagined an army a' people, people without guns, without hate, Black an' White together, comin' from all over the country an' marching on up to the gates a' President Kennedy's White House. A'course, Doctor King'd be way up front an' he'd speak for the millions a' people. He'd ask the President for equal rights. Then the President'd look out over the sea a' people an' with a wave a' his hand he'd pass all the laws we needed to be equal. To be free. ..."
"' waited. I was so taken away by his words that I was caught off guard by the thunderous applause that erupted all 'round me. Hundreds a' thousands a' pairs a' hands let him know that they shared his dream too. In my mind at that moment, Martin Lutha' King was the greatest man on earth. An' standing there, letting the power a' his words sink into my brain, anythin' seemed possible. It took me back to how I felt that day in school when I seen my picture in the Los Angeles Times. Back then I felt like ..."

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