FIFTY years ago, Birmingham, Ala., provided the enduring iconography of the civil rights era, testing the mettle of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. so dramatically that he was awarded the 1964 Nobel Peace Prize.
During his protest there in May 1963, the biblical spectacle of black children facing down Public Safety Commissioner Eugene (Bull) Connor’s fire hoses and police dogs set the stage for King’s Sermon on the Mount some four months later at the Lincoln Memorial. And the civil rights movement’s “Year of Birmingham” passed into history as an epic narrative of good versus evil.
Our understanding of the “good” has expanded beyond the lone-dreamer theory to embrace other activists, like King’s partner in Birmingham, the Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth. Yet the evil segregationist archetype is fixed in the popular mind as the villainous housewife of “The Help” or the cretinous mob of “Django Unchained” — nobody we’d ever know, or certainly ever be.
But the disquieting reality is that the conflict was between not good and evil, but good and normal. The brute racism that today seems like mass social insanity was a “way of life” practiced by ordinary “good” people.
According to the Southern community’s consensus of “normal,” those fighting for rights now considered mainstream were “extremists,” and public servants could rationalize plans to murder men like Shuttlesworth, confident that they were on the right side of history.
Consider new evidence about a plan by Connor to have Shuttlesworth assassinated. Under Connor’s orders, Detective Tom Cook found a black man vulnerable to the law, supplied him with a gun and planted him by the steps of a church where Shuttlesworth was speaking one night. The plot was foiled when a passing police car frightened the hit man away.
What distinguishes this from other officially sanctioned schemes to kill Shuttlesworth is proof that it was known by the state’s largest news organization, The Birmingham News, owned by the Newhouse family, which also sponsored extensive surveillance of local citizens.
Cook described the attempt to a young reporter at The News, Tom Lankford, who was considered “Bull’s boy” by the police he covered. He was also the protégé of the paper’s chief executive, Vincent Townsend, who had given him a sizable budget for surveillance equipment to fulfill his own desire, as the city’s power broker, “to know every word they’re saying,” according to Mr. Lankford, “10 minutes after they’ve said it.”
Logically, then, Townsend was also aware that the city commissioner he had supported editorially intended to murder an innocent, nonviolent man. But The News remained silent on Connor’s criminal proclivities, and the lawman who had no qualms about telling a reporter of his key role in an attempted murder must not have realized he was doing anything wrong.
Mr. Lankford saw Townsend’s goal as “racial peace in troubled Birmingham,” and believed that it was being served by the surveillance he conducted in frequent concert with the police. Indeed their mission was aided by a previously undisclosed communitywide network.
The phone company gave Mr. Lankford and his law-enforcement cohorts spiked pole climbers and instructions on “running” various junction boxes, and lent them an old truck still bearing the Southern Bell logo.
A local rabbi — one of the eight clergymen to whom King addressed his “Letter From Birmingham Jail” — purchased spy equipment for the police, intending for it to be used on racist groups under investigation for placing dynamite at a local temple in 1958.
But the electronics also ended up being used on white community leaders and, naturally, the civil rights movement. Mr. Lankford says he and a police detective even eavesdropped on union officials representing Newhouse’s broadcast employees during contract negotiations. One popular wiretap target was a local pastor, A. D. King, who was overheard arranging a rendezvous for him and his visiting older brother, Martin Luther King, with women who were not their wives. The police organized a sting, with Mr. Lankford along to take pictures. We may never know if the intelligence on the brothers was correct, because the detectives lost the car carrying the elder King that night in a traffic jam.
But the most surprising detail about this incident is that it happened in October 1963, months after Connor was forced from office. That means that the new, supposedly enlightened city government was carrying on his battle to destroy the movement that had just irrevocably put Birmingham on the map, next to Gettysburg: those “events of Birmingham” had moved John F. Kennedy to introduce what became the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
As its yearlong commemoration of those events now begins, white Birmingham will be tempted to fall back on its favorite “Bull Connor as bad apple” defense. Even for those who lived through segregation, it’s hard to accept the civic truth of Shuttlesworth’s time: that “racial peace” was an objective supported by murder.
“Everyone behaves badly — given the chance,” Hemingway wrote in “The Sun Also Rises.” What sets white Southerners apart is that they had so many ways to go wrong, confronting a moral dilemma each time they drank from a white water fountain. Painting all segregationists as cartoon racists encourages the rest of us to take cover under a blanket illusion of blamelessness — give or take an Abu Ghraib or a Penn State football program. Or the F.B.I.’s own obscene wiretap campaign to discredit Martin Luther King.
If I were to indulge in the annual “If King were alive …” game, I would guess he’d be morally embarrassing the insidious new “normal” — assassination by drone, for example, and the repressed torture “debate” that has returned on such a timely holiday. Do we really want to be a country that argues about whether torture “works”? So did segregation.
Diane McWhorter is the author of “Carry Me Home.”