Friday, April 24, 2015

Bull Connor and the Consequences of Racism

In May 1963, brutal and horrific images shocked not only the United States, but the world: images of peaceful protesters being attacked by dogs and pummeled by high-pressure fire hoses.

These images - newsreels or still photographs - have been seared into the consciousness and into the conscience of humanity. They stand as a symbol for the cruelty, viciousness, and hatred which racism is, and which racism engenders.

More than half a century later, these images retain their shocking power, and energize new generations to seek equal opportunities for people of all races.

But who was the man behind these images? Who ordered the savage dogs to be released onto innocent men, women, and children? Who commanded that high pressure water be directed at people?

And which consequences did he pay?

These images come from Birmingham, Alabama. The protesters were part of an event organized by the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. Their peaceful protest walk through the city was designed to elicit a statement from Birmingham’s mayor.

Instead, they got the attention of “Bull” Connor, who was the Commissioner for Public Safety for the City of Birmingham. His legal name was Theophilus Eugene Connor. He personally made the decision to unleash the dogs and fire hoses at the young protesters.

Within days, the images of brutality directed against African-Americans, and against the white people who joined them in their protest, had turned large parts of the nation against Birmingham. The city’s government quickly negotiated a settlement with the protesters, which included the desegregation of some public accommodations.

But what happened to “Bull” Connor? Following the events of early 1963, the Democratic Party nominated him, later that year, to be its candidate for the Presidency of the Alabama Public Service Commission. This would be a promotion for him; he had previously been commissioner over a single city - now he would have authority over the entire state.

Not only was he nominated for the statewide ballot, but he was also chosen by the Democratic Party to be the state’s national committeeman. In September 1964, the New York Times reported that

Mr. Connor, the former Birmingham City Police Commissioner, is this state’s Democratic National Committeeman.

Leading up the November elections that year, the newspaper goes on to explain who’s supporting Connor’s bid for statewide office:

Mr. Connor is the Democratic nominee for the chairmanship of the state Public Service Commission.

With the support of his party, Connor won handily and took office in January 1965. This is how his party rewarded him for his work in Birmingham in May 1963.

In 1968, the Democratic Party nominated Connor for reelection, and helped him to victory again.

Historian James L. Baggett writes that “Connor was unrepentant and never repudiated his defense of racial segregation.”