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Tim Stafford


Birmingham, 1963

Turning point of the civil rights movement.

Carry Me Home: Birmingham, Alabama: The Climactic Battle of the Civil Rights Revolution, by Diane McWhorter, Simon & Schuster, 2001, 700 pp.; $35

Blessed Are the Peacemakers: Martin Luther King, Jr., Eight White Religious Leaders, and the "Letter from Birmingham Jail", by S. Jonathan Bass, Louisiana State University Press, 2001, 322 pp.; $39.95

The Last Days: A Son's Story of Sin and Segregation at the Dawn of a New South, by Charles Marsh, Basic Books, 2001, 208 pp.; $25

Nineteen sixty-three was the pivotal year of the civil rights movement. In a city named Birmingham, where little of note had happened before and nothing earthshaking has happened since, powerful forces for and against integration collided. It was something like the Battle of Gettysburg one hundred years before, in that both sides chose deliberately to test their strength in a make-or-break struggle. The armies of the civil rights movement were led by the nonviolent Baptist preacher Martin Luther King, Jr., and the armies of the segregationists by a baseball announcer turned politician, Eugene "Bull" Connor.

King was an immediatist, which was a change from the NAACP's gradualist strategy. The NAACP had fought for change through the courts, culminating in the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision to desegregate schools. The NAACP would continue to pursue legal enforcement, but for King and other civil rights leaders, progress was too slow. Wily white southerners knew how to subvert, ignore, or circumvent the law. Nine years after Brown, segregation in Alabama was unchanged.

King's strategy was to make a moral rather than a legal battle by demanding rights in a confrontational though nonviolent manner, to make segregationists blow their genteel cover. It was a strategy that owed more than a little to Jesus' march on Jerusalem, where he deliberately confronted the religious and governmental powers, willingly taking their violence on himself. Not that King imagined himself as a messiah—though sometimes ...

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