Vol. 2, No. 1 (January, 1992), pp. 1-3
BULL CONNOR by William A. Nunnelly. Tuscaloosa: The University of Alabama Press, 1991. 225pp.
Reviewed by Jolanta Juszkiewicz, Pretrial Services Resource Center, Washington, D.C.
In the early 1960s, two segregated cities in the deep south were the targets of civil rights demonstrations orchestrated by Martin Luther King, Jr. The tactics used by the demonstrators were similar; the responses of the top-ranking law enforcement officials in the two cities were disparate. Laurie Pritchett, Chief of Police of Albany, Georgia, avoided conflict. In his capacity as Commissioner of Public Safety for Birmingham, Alabama, Eugene "Bull" Connor ordered police dogs and water hoses to be used to control crowds. One of these men became the subject of a biography, the other a footnote in the biography.
"The movement was really about getting publicity for injustice" (p.164) noted Andrew Young, a lieutenant of King's. The Albany campaign was uneventful. In its wake, King directed the energies of the civil rights movement to Project C, for "confrontation." In Bull Connor, the civil rights movement found "the perfect adversary," to coin the author's term. There was no more vivid a picture of the injustice of segregation as "the confrontation between grim-faced, helmeted policemen and their dogs, and black children chanting freedom songs and hymns." (p.163) For a seven-day period in May 1963, the nation was exposed to these and similar pictures (some of which appear in the book). Reports of the incidents in Birmingham moved President John F. Kennedy to remark that "the civil rights movement should thank God for Bull Connor. He's helped it as much as Abraham Lincoln." (p. 164)
A biography of a man and the times in which he lived stirs readers' sensibilities more than the antiseptic and analytic accounts provided by a textbook or treatise. A biography exposes the emotions of its subject and the people in his life as well as the facts and under-currents of the times. A biography presents a closer and in-depth look at a subject, who for better or worse on a large or small scale, influenced the course of history. Pritchett, for the sake of expedience, temporarily acquiesced allowing the demonstrators to protest without incident. Connor's stubborn refusal to give way to the civil rights movement actually thrust the movement much needed revitalization. And the rest, as the saying goes, is a matter of history. Thus, Bull Connor, a man of humble roots and limited ambitions, determined to perpetuate the status quo even if that meant resorting to strong-arm tactics, became the subject of a biography. Connor and Birmingham played Goliath -- representing the last bastion of entrenched segregationist feeling -- to the civil rights movement's David.
The climactic seven-days in May 1963 can only be understood in terms of the political environment existing in Birmingham and Connor as a product of that environment. This biography is not a psychological discourse of Bull Connor. Rather, it examines his career as a public servant that spanned nearly three decades. In the best tradition of political science scholars, the biography deals with local politics, the relationship between financial and political interests, the battle between local and federal political entities, and the south's desperate struggle to maintain a way of life that was becoming anachronistic.
Segregation was still the law of the land as far as the citizens of Birmingham, Alabama, were concerned despite Supreme Court decisions to the contrary. In his inaugural remarks in 1957, upon winning the post of Commissioner of Public Safety after a four-year hiatus from politics, Connor said: "These laws [segregation] are still constitutional and I promise you that until they are removed from the ordinance books of Birmingham and the statute books of Alabama, they will be enforced in Birmingham to the utmost of my ability and by all lawful means." (p. 61)
Connor's popularity, as demonstrated by his six victories in city commission races, came from white voters -- workers and corporate leaders alike. His reputation among the rank-and-file was that of an honest, albeit colorful man who maintained "his willingness to keep blacks `in their place'" (p. 181) and his membership in the telegrapher's union. He was one of them, born into a working class family and whose career prior to his public service was that of telegrapher and radio sports announcer.
Connor had the backing of the local corporate elite in spite of his declarations of being free of outside influence. Connor helped the industrial elite by "controlling strikes...silencing radicals.... Connor was exactly what companies that controlled Birmingham were looking for...." He was counted on to keep the status quo. Connor "stayed on the good side of the business leaders... [and was] always receptive to corporate suggestions." His preaching about economy in government and no new taxes reflected the influence of Birmingham's industrial and financial interests, who "always insisted in cheap government with only bare essential services." (p. 182)
According to Nunnelly, Connor's very success at reading the electorate was probably responsible for his ultimate downfall. Nunnelly concludes that "Connor learned the art of politics well, so well that he stayed too long in office. Thus during an era that increasingly called for compromise in race relations, he stubbornly played the hard line, resisting integration until the bitter end." (p. 185)
Nunnelly traces Connor's life and career, highlighting the people and events that most influenced these. The first chapter, entitled "City of Fear" portrays Birmingham as the last bastion of segregation, a blue-collar city ridden with racially-motivated violence, and a city in which two strong and opposing forces confronted each other in full view of the nation. Connor represented the force that wielded water hoses and police dogs; the other force was represented by Martin Luther King and a movement struggling to bring to light the plight of blacks.
The succeeding chapters track Connor's career, starting as a man determined to clean Birmingham of gambling and corruption, through three decades of change that Connor refused to accept. First, bombings of blacks who dared "cross the line" -- whether in the area of housing, recreation, lunch counters, schools -- remained unresolved even after years of investigation. Then the dilatory police response to protect Freedom Riders resulted in setting buses on fire, and injury to numerous Freedom Riders, some from the fires, and others from mob attacks. In defiance of a court order to integrate recreational facilities, Connor closed the city park. And finally in May 1963, Connor's confrontational reaction to the civil rights marchers, left an indelible impression on the nation and assured Connor's place in history, albeit not a favorable one.
This is a book worth reading. It is of the same genre as GIDEON'S TRUMPET for presenting a close and personal look at the people behind the news. It is ironic that a man, whose personal and professional goal was to maintain the status quo, was instrumental in attracting attention to a movement that brought irrevocable changes to Birmingham, the South, and indeed, the whole country. Bull Connor provided the conduit for the civil rights movement to dramatize the effects of segregation. To enact the Civil Rights Act or the Voting Rights Act, the public and political leaders had to witness blatantly racially motivated aggression; peaceful demonstrations and protests against discrimination were not persuasive enough.