Joe David Brown was born and grew up in Birmingham, Alabama, graduating from the University of Alabama and taking a job at the Birmingham Post. He wrote several novels, including one that became the film Paper Moon. In March 1963, he published a piece for the Saturday Evening Post entitled, “Birmingham: A City in Fear.”
“The people of Birmingham are no more backward than people in other Southern cities,” he wrote. “Although they don't like it, most of the leading business and professional people in Birmingham realize that integration is inevitable, and probably a majority of them also feel that it is time to start making plans so the transition can be made smoothly and peacefully—and as slowly as possible. The reason they do not speak up is, quite simply, fear. It is not the eye-rolling, quaking fear seen in police states, and people in Birmingham prefer to call it by other names, but it is fear all the same.”
He went on: “It is fear of being ostracized or called names, fear of losing status, jobs, customers, clients and advertising, and, more often than would seem possible among a hardy people, fear of chili parlor hoodlums who have wrapped themselves in Confederate flags although they are upholding no tradition but hate and no custom except violence.”
Much of the fear was for Birmingham’s image across the country. And the fear is related to Birmingham’s tendency to pass the buck, blaming outsiders for their troubles. Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote in Why We Can’t Wait: “For years, in the South, the white segregationist has been saying the Negro was ‘satisfied.’ He has claimed ‘we get along beautifully with our Negroes because we understand them. We only have trouble when outside agitators come in and stir things up” (18-19).
Salisbury was treated as an outside agitator. So was King when he came to lead Project C demonstrations. Bull Connor perfected this blame-shifting. When someone from the Birmingham suburb of Mountain Brook brought a complaint to him, he would ask, “Do you even live in Birmingham?” Residents of suburbs on the south side of Red Mountain were considered “outside agitators.” Federal intervention to force integration at the University of Alabama was “outside agitation.”
This blameshifting shaped white attitudes toward the civil rights movement in Birmingham. Whites were suspicious of black leaders, thinking they were in the control of “outside agitators.” There were members of the Communist Party involved in the civil rights movement. That is a fact. But it doesn’t take much investigation to see that the motivations of the black leaders were Christian.
This was stated explicitly in the Birmingham Manifesto, issued on April 2, 1963, signed by Shuttlesworth and ACMHR secretary, NH Smith. That includes this statement: “We act today in full concert with our Hebraic-Christian tradition, the law of morality and the Constitution of our nation. The absence of justice and progress in Birmingham demands that we make a moral witness to give our community a chance to survive. We demonstrate our faith that we believe that the Beloved Community can come to Birmingham.”
In Why We Can’t Wait, King compared the civil rights movement to the “nonviolent resistance of the early Christians” which was “a moral offense of such overriding power that it shook the Roman Empire” (30). Each participant in the 1963 demonstrations was required to take training in non-violent protest, and to sign a pledge that included these items:
1. Meditate daily on the teachings and life of Jesus.
2. Remember always that the nonviolent movement in Birmingham seeks justice and reconciliation – not victory.
3. Walk and talk in the manner of love, for God is love.
3. Pray daily to be used by God in order that all men might be free.
Why did white Christians see this as a threat? Why didn’t they embrace the black citizens of Birmingham as fellow citizens, as brothers and sisters? Fear cast out love.
Martin Luther King (Letter from a Birmingham Jail) recognized the irony of this blameshifting to “outside agitators” in a city of churches. There was a time when the churches were condemned as the outside agitators: “There was a time when the church was very powerful--in the time when the early Christians rejoiced at being deemed worthy to suffer for what they believed. In those days the church was not merely a thermometer that recorded the ideas and principles of popular opinion; it was a thermostat that transformed the mores of society. Whenever the early Christians entered a town, the people in power became disturbed and immediately sought to convict the Christians for being ‘disturbers of the peace’ and ‘outside agitators.’ But the Christians pressed on, in the conviction that they were ‘a colony of heaven,’ called to obey God rather than man. Small in number, they were big in commitment. They were too God-intoxicated to be ‘astronomically intimidated.’ By their effort and example they brought an end to such ancient evils as infanticide and gladiatorial contests.”
King charged that the church had lost this confident power, and had turned into a tool of the establishment: “So often the contemporary church is a weak, ineffectual voice with an uncertain sound. So often it is an arch-defender of the status quo. Far from being disturbed by the presence of the church, the power structure of the average community is consoled by the church's silent--and often even vocal--sanction of things as they are.”
Birmingham’s leaders blamed King for outbreaks of violence. They recognized that his demonstrations were non-violent, but condemned them for provoking violence. King shot back: “Isn't this like condemning Jesus because his unique God consciousness and never ceasing devotion to God's will precipitated the evil act of crucifixion?” (Letter).
He answered the charge of “extremism” with a litany of biblical and historical Christian agitators (Letter): “Was not Jesus an extremist for love: ‘Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you.’ Was not Amos an extremist for justice: ‘Let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever flowing stream.’ Was not Paul an extremist for the Christian gospel: ‘I bear in my body the marks of the Lord Jesus.’ Was not Martin Luther an extremist: ‘Here I stand; I cannot do otherwise, so help me God.’ And John Bunyan: ‘I will stay in jail to the end of my days before I make a butchery of my conscience.’ So the question is not whether we will be extremists, but what kind of extremists we will be. Will we be extremists for hate or for love? Will we be extremists for the preservation of injustice or for the extension of justice? In that dramatic scene on Calvary's hill three men were crucified. We must never forget that all three were crucified for the same crime--the crime of extremism. Two were extremists for immorality, and thus fell below their environment. The other, Jesus Christ, was an extremist for love, truth and goodness, and thereby rose above his environment. Perhaps the South, the nation and the world are in dire need of creative extremists.”
To download Theopolis Lectures, please enter your email.