The Speech That Shocked Birmingham the Day After the Church Bombing

In 1960, The New York Times' correspondent Harrison Salisbury wrote a flammable piece on Birmingham titled "Fear and Hatred Grip Birmingham. In a tone Morgan would echo three years later, Salisbury wrote of the city: "Every channel of communication, every medium of mutual interest, every reasoned approach, every inch of middle ground has been fragmented by the emotional dynamite of racism, enforced by the whip, the razor, the gun, the bomb, the torch, the club, the knife, the mob, the police and many branches of the state's apparatus." Furious, Alabama officials quickly sued the Times for libel.

Birmingham is the only city in America where the police chief and the sheriff in the school crisis had to call our local ministers together to tell them to do their duty. The ministers of Birmingham who have done so little for Christianity call for prayer at high noon in a city of lawlessness, and in the same breath, speak of our city's "image." Did those ministers visit the families of the Negroes in their hour of travail? Did many of them go to the homes of their brothers and express their regrets in person or pray with the crying relatives? Do they admit Negroes into their ranks at the church?

The libel lawsuit (remember, this was before the Supreme Court issued New York Times v. Sullivan, a decision that broadened first amendment protections for journalists) immediately impacted Morgan. He was asked to represent the Rev. Robert L. Hughes, a white Methodist minister who was a director of the Alabama Council on Human Relations, a group designed to act as a liaison between the white and black communities in Birmingham. Hughes had been served a subpoena to produce the records of all those who supported the council. And he had decided to fight the request.

Who is guilty? A moderate mayor elected to change things in Birmingham and who moves so slowly and looks elsewhere for leadership? A business community which shrugs its shoulders and looks to the police or perhaps somewhere else for leadership? A newspaper which has tried so hard of late, yet finds it necessary to lecture Negroes every time a Negro home is bombed? A governor who offers a reward but mentions not his own failure to preserve either segregation or law and order? And what of those lawyers and politicians who counsel people as to what the law is not, when they know full well what the law is?

Representing Rev. Hughes immediately made Morgan the target of the Klan. Its members accosted him in a courthouse at a hearing. There were anonymous nighttime phone calls. "How come you'd represent that nigger-lover Hughes?" he would be asked. "You better watch out, tough guy. Some night we'll get you alone." The experience made Morgan realize that he and Hughes, that all moderates seeking to foster equal rights in the South at that time, were "in the same boat." Whether he had wanted to or not, he had chosen a side.

Those four little Negro girls were human beings. They had lived their fourteen years in a leaderless city: a city where no one accepts responsibility, where everybody wants to blame somebody else. A city with a reward fund which grew like Topsy as a sort of sacrificial offering, a balm for the conscience of the "good people," whose ready answer is for those "right wing extremists" to shut up. People who absolve themselves of guilt. The liberal lawyer who told me this morning, "Me? I'm not guilty!" he then proceeding to discuss the guilt of the other lawyers, the one who told the people that the Supreme Court did not properly interpret the law. And that's the way it is with the Southern liberals. They condemn those with whom they disagree for speaking while they sit in fearful silence.

He became radicalized—but only to a point and always within the structure of the law. He represented a black murder defendant named Boaz Sanders, a case that further opened his eyes to the state's unequal justice under law. Then he sued the University of Alabama, his beloved alma mater, after it refused to admit two black men around the same time it was stalling the admission of Hood and Malone. These were formal acts of subversion against a culture he could neither abide nor quit. It was tough love. It was the tiny ripple of hope that Robert Kennedy, years later, would talk about in South Africa.

Birmingham is a city in which the major industry, operated from Pittsburgh, never tried to solve the problem. It is a city where four little Negro girls can be born into a second-class school system, live a segregated life, ghettoed into their own little neighborhoods, restricted to Negro churches, destined to ride in Negro ambulances, to Negro wards of hospitals or to a Negro cemetery. Local papers, on their front and editorial pages, call for order and then exclude their names from obituary columns.

The Alabama of the early 1960s was the Alabama of George Wallace and the Freedom Riders. It was the Alabama of Vivian Malone and James Hood and Eugene "Bull" Connor. It was the Alabama from which came many blacks and whites who believed in integration and in civil rights and who participated in the March on Washington on August 28, 1963. And then, just 18 days later, it was the Alabama that detonated a bomb inside a church on a Sunday. "My God," a woman on the scene screamed, "you're not even safe in a church."

And who is really guilty? Each of us. Each citizen who has not consciously attempted to bring about peaceful compliance with the decisions of the Supreme Court of the United States, every citizen who has ever said "they ought to kill that nigger," every citizen who votes for the candidate with the bloody flag, every citizen and every school board member and schoolteacher and principal and businessman and judge and lawyer who has corrupted the minds of our youth; every person in this community who has in any way contributed during the past several years to the popularity of hatred, is at least as guilty, or more so, than the demented fool who threw that bomb.

What's it like living in Birmingham? No one ever really has known and no one will until this city becomes part of the United States. Birmingham is not a dying city; it is dead.

And with those words—"It is dead"—Morgan sat down. In his powerful book, "A Time to Speak," from which the speech has been transcribed, Morgan wrote: "There was applause, and then one member rose. He suggested that we admit a Negro into the club. There was silence. The motion died. Soon the Young Men's Business Club of Birmingham, Alabama, adjourned its meeting of September 16, 1963. It was one o'clock. Downstairs, the troopers still laughed and talked, and blocks away the carillon again played 'Dixie.'"

Postscript

Following the speech, the threats began almost immediately. The very next morning, at 5 a.m., Morgan received a call. "Is the mortician there yet?" a voice asked. "I don't know any morticians," Morgan responded. "Well, you will," the voice answered, "when the bodies are all over your front yard." Later, Morgan recounted, a client of his drove an hour to tell him to flee Birmingham. "They'll shoot you down like a dog," the client told Morgan. Little wonder that Morgan quickly closed down his law practice and moved himself and his family to safety.

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Andrew Cohen is a contributing editor at The Atlantic. He is a legal analyst for 60 Minutes and CBS Radio News, and a fellow at the Brennan Center for Justice.

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