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Bull Connor: Icon of Alabama Racism

I've spent half a century writing for radio and print (mostly print). I hope to still be tapping the keys as I take my last breath.

The story of the mistreatment of African Americans is well known and doesn’t need to be repeated here. Campaigning for change, thousands of youngsters exploited the obstinate bigotry of a white supremacist and gave new impetus to the civil rights movement.

The system of segregation in Birmingham, Alabama, was enforced by the Commissioner of Public Safety, Eugene “Bull” Connor (below). Digital History notes that, “Calling Birmingham ‘the most thoroughly segregated city in the United States,’ the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. announced in early 1963 that he would lead demonstrations in the city until demands for fair hiring practices and desegregation were met.”

“You can never whip these birds if you don’t keep you and them separate. I found that out in Birmingham. You’ve got to keep your white and black separate.

— Bull Connor

Project “C” Is Born

Dan Rather, the long-time CBS News correspondent, was involved in covering the civil rights movement in the U.S. south in 1962 and ’63. In his 2012 book, Rather Outspoken, he notes that the campaign for equality became stalled in 1963: “ . . . they could march and chant and sing until hell froze over, but it wouldn’t make a dent unless they elicited an extreme response from the segregationists and the press was there to witness it, report it and show it on the air.”

So, the movement leaders launched Project “C”—for Confrontation. This was aimed at provoking authorities into so outrageous a reaction that it would rouse Americans out of their quiet acceptance of discrimination against Black people.

The activists needed someone, in the words of Mr. Rather, so filled with racial hatred and so dumb “that he didn’t care what the pictures looked like.” They found such a person in Theophilus Eugene “Bull” Connor.

Crackdown on Freedom Riders

Connor was quite open about his racist beliefs and had, says PBS, “close ties to the Ku Klux Klan.” In 1961, the first Freedom Riders arrived in Birmingham with the goal of desegregating the city bus system and Bull Connor was ready for them.

A PBS biography says Connor told local Klansmen they should meet the activists when they arrived and “He would see to it that 15 or 20 minutes would elapse before the police arrived.” The Freedom Riders were viciously beaten up.

When asked why police had not stopped the violence, Connor came up with a ludicrous explanation: “No policemen were in sight as the buses arrived, because they were visiting their mothers on Mother’s Day.”

In 1962, Bull Connor announced his candidacy for Governor of Alabama and promised to buy “one hundred new police dogs for use in the event of more Freedom Rides.”

“All you gotta do is tell them you’re going to bring the dogs. Look at em run. I want to see the dogs work.

— Bull Connor

But, Connor lost out in his gubernatorial bid to another avowed racist, George Wallace. In his inaugural address Governor Wallace made it clear where he stood: “In the name of the greatest people that have ever trod this earth, I draw the line in the dust and toss the gauntlet before the feet of tyranny, and I say segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever.” A hyperbolic clash of mixed metaphors that was greeted with cheers and applause by his all-white audience.

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Brutality of Civil Rights Opposition

The PBS documentary series, Eyes on the Prize, America’s Civil Rights Movement 1954 – 1985 records that “activists began recruiting children to march.”

They were met by Bull Connor and his police and fire departments. The commissioner was determined to show the marchers who was the boss and what their “proper place” was. On the first day of protests 700 marchers were arrested.

“On May 3rd (1963), 1,000 more children show up to peacefully protest, and Connor turned high-pressure fire hoses and police dogs on them, creating some of the most indelibly violent images to date.”

Dan Rather reported that, “Up close, the jets of water would be forceful enough to flay flesh from bone; even at a somewhat greater distance, the water ripped clothing and sent children rolling down the street.”

William A. Nunnelly, a biographer of Bull Connor, describes how “the confrontation between grim-faced, helmeted policemen and their dogs, and black children chanting freedom songs and hymns” shocked the world audience that saw the newsreels.

Five days after the protests began the city’s jails were overflowing with 2,500 prisoners, 2,000 of them children. America was getting a terrible black eye internationally and the civil rights movement got the violent overreaction it wanted.

“Our people of Birmingham are a peaceful people and we never have any trouble here unless some people come into our city looking for trouble. And I’ve never seen anyone yet look for trouble who wasn’t able to find it.

— Bull Connor

Turning Point in Civil Rights Movement

Bull Connor’s orchestrated violence is described by Dan Rather as the “tipping point” in the civil rights movement. The Alabama Department of Archives and History says that “The events in Birmingham helped mobilize the administration of President John Kennedy to begin efforts leading to the most far-reaching civil rights legislation in history, the Civil Rights Act of 1964.”

As President Kennedy said, “The civil rights movement should thank God for Bull Connor. He’s helped it as much as Abraham Lincoln.”

Bull Connor died in February 1973. The documentary Segregation at all Costs: Bull Connor and the Civil Rights Movement points out that by the time of his death “Connor had lost almost all his political power and remains in the minds of Americans as a racist leader in the south.”


Civil Rights Today

Of course, that was then and this is now and Black people and white people in the American South get along just fine. Actually, no they don’t.

Chauncey Devega (Salon, March 2016) writes that “Since the end of the African-American civil rights movement, the electoral strategy of the Republican Party has relied on the use of racially coded appeals and ‘dog whistle’ politics to win over white voters.”

Republican strategist Lee Atwater taught his party how to do this way back in 1981. To reach the racist voter, you don’t bark hate in the manner of Wallace and Connor. You send out a coded message that your target will hear but will pass by those not tuned in.

Atwater gave examples of what came to be called the GOP’s Southern Strategy: “So you say stuff like, uh, forced busing, states’ rights, and all that stuff, and you’re getting so abstract . . . you’re talking about cutting taxes, and all these things you’re talking about are totally economic things and a by-product of them is, Blacks get hurt worse than whites . . . ”

Former candidate for the 2016 Republican Party presidential nomination Rand Paul “holds an unacceptable view of civil rights, saying that while the federal government can enforce integration of government jobs and facilities, private business people should be able to decide whether they want to serve Black people, or gays, or any other minority group.”

— Louisville Courier-Journal

And, this is how dog-whistle politics works today in the world of ex-President Donald Trump. Asked about being endorsed for president by David Duke, former Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan, Trump fudged the answer. “I don’t know anything about David Duke, OK? I don’t know anything about what you’re even talking about with white supremacy or white supremacists. So, I don’t know. I don’t know, did he endorse me, or what’s going on? Because, you know, I know nothing about David Duke.”

(Duke subsequently said he hadn’t endorsed Trump). However, fact checking turned up past quotes from Donald Trump indicating he knows plenty about David Duke.

Those who have a racist bent heard, loud and clear, that Mr. Trump is one of them.

When white supremacists gathered in Charlottesville, Virginia in August 2017, they were confronted by anti-racist protesters. Mr. Trump's reaction was that "There are some very fine people on both sides." The neo-Nazis and their followers heard that as an endorsement of their point of view.

During the 2018 mid-term elections Trump's campaign team released an ad that demonized Mexicans. Again, the former-president was saying to racists it's okay to hate Hispanics and non-white people.

Trump lost the 2020 presidential election but has refused to accept defeat. His backers have been busy making it more difficult for people of colour, who are overwhelmingly Democrats, to vote in upcoming elections.

The Civil Rights Act may have passed but racism and bigotry can’t be legislated out of the minds of some people.


Bonus Factoids

  • Placards are showing up at Trump rallies reading “The Silent Majority Stands with Trump,” which resurrects Richard Nixon’s code phrase for “white people.”
  • Charles and Te’Andrea Wilson ran into a nasty bit of discrimination in July 2012. The African-American couple were to get married in their church in Crystal Springs, Mississippi, but the white congregants kicked up a fuss. Charles Wilson told CNN: “Because of the fact that we were Black, some of the members of the congregation had got upset and decided that no Black couple would ever be married at that church.” Charles and Te’Andrea were married in a Christian church that does not see the colour of their skin as a problem.


  • “America in Ferment: The Tumultuous 1960s.” Digital History, undated.
  • “Rather Outspoken.” Dan Rather with Digby Diehl, Grand Central Publishing, May 2012.
  • “Eugene ‘Bull’ Connor.” PBS American Experience, undated.
  • “Eyes on the Prize, America’s Civil Rights Movement 1954 – 1985.” PBS American Experience, undated.
  • “Inaugural Address.” Governor George Wallace of Alabama, January 1963.
  • “Bull Connor.” William A. Nunnelley. The University of Alabama Press, 1991.
  • “T. Eugene ‘Bull’ Connor.” William A. Nunnelley, Alabama Department of Archives and History, undated.
  • “Segregation at All Costs: Bull Connor and the Civil Rights Movement.” Eamon Ronan, undated.
  • “Donald Trump Has Dropped the GOP’s Mask: Conservatism and Racism now Officially the Same Thing.” Chauncey Devega, Salon, March 1, 2016.
  • “Exclusive: Lee Atwater’s Infamous 1981 Interview on the Southern Strategy.”Rick Perlstein, The Nation, November 13, 2012.
  • “Why Trump May Be Winning the War on ‘Political Correctness.’ ” Karen Tumulty and Jenna Johnson, Washington Post, January 4 , 2016.
  • “Church Refuses to Marry Black Couple in Mississippi.” CNN Wire Staff, July 30, 2012.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2016 Rupert Taylor

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