In the first half of 1963, civil rights leaders chose Birmingham as the target of “Project C” (for confrontation), aiming to force businesses to integrate lunch counters and employ more blacks. Despite terrifying threats from Commissioner of Public Safety Eugene “Bull” Connor, pickets, sit-ins and marches went forward, resulting in mass arrests. More than two thousand protesters flooded the prisons; one was Dr Martin Luther King, Jr, who wrote his Letter from a Birmingham Jail after being branded an extremist by local white clergymen. Connor’s use of high-pressure fire hoses, cattleprods and dogs against demonstrators acted as a potent catalyst of support. Pictures of snarling German Shepherds sinking their teeth into the flesh of schoolkids were transmitted around the world, and led to an agreement between civil rights leaders and businesses that June. Success in Birmingham sparked demonstrations in 186 other cities, which culminated in the 1964 Civil Rights Act prohibiting racial segregation. The headquarters for the campaign, the 16th Street Baptist Church, on the corner of Sixth Avenue, was the site of a sickening Klan bombing on September 15, 1963, which killed four young black girls attending a Bible class. The three murderers were eventually jailed, though it took until 2002. Across the road, Kelly Ingram Park, site of the 1960s rallies, has a Freedom Walk diagramming the events through sculptures of menacing dogs, water cannons and youthful protestors. Next door, the admirable Civil Rights Institute, 520 16th St (bcri.org), is an affecting attempt to interpret the factors that led to such violence and racial hatred. Exhibits re-create life in a segregated city, complete with a burned-out bus and heart-rending videos of bus boycotts and the March on Washington.

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