Martin Luther King Day, Bull Connor years

Sam Smith, 2006

I would like to celebrate Martin Luther King Day but I can’t get Bull Connor out of my mind. I look for reminders of Martin Luther King but they are either old and weary or in lonely, small places. Reminders of Bull Connor are all around us.

The spirit of Bull Connor can be found in our foreign policy, in our police methods, in our treatment of the weak and the poor, in our abuse of the Constitution, in the implicit values of our media, in the violent forms of entertainment we prefer and our contempt for those who are different than ourselves, even in how we raise and teach our children. And, of course, as Charles Rangel said, “George Bush is our Bull Connor.”

Bull Connor was more than a brutal police commissioner. In describing William Nunnelly’s biography of Connor, Neal Tate writes, “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.’ “

In short, a Bush era conservative without the social graces.

It is hard to remember without reminders: an object, a story, a contemporary version of what we are trying to recall. The sense of Martin Luther King seems to have vanished. You won’t find him in the Senate. You won’t find him on CNN, nor C-SPAN nor NPR. He’s even hard to find in the pulpit or in the streets. Bull Connor, on the other hand, is everywhere.

In that sense, we are living in a Birmingham before anything happened. Before Bull Connor was challenged.

But eventually he was, and here is what one man named King said about it:

I remember in Birmingham, Alabama, when we were in that majestic struggle there, we would move out of the 16th Street Baptist Church day after day; by the hundreds we would move out. And Bull Connor would tell them to send the dogs forth, and they did come; but we just went before the dogs singing, “Ain’t gonna let nobody turn me around.”

Bull Connor next would say, “Turn the fire hoses on.” And as I said to you the other night, Bull Connor didn’t know history. He knew a kind of physics that somehow didn’t relate to the trans-physics that we knew about. And that was the fact that there was a certain kind of fire that no water could put out. And we went before the fire hoses; we had known water. If we were Baptist or some other denominations, we had been immersed. If we were Methodist, and some others, we had been sprinkled, but we knew water. That couldn’t stop us. And we just went on before the dogs and we would look at them; and we’d go on before the water hoses and we would look at it, and we’d just go on singing “Over my head I see freedom in the air.”

And then we would be thrown in the paddy wagons, and sometimes we were stacked in there like sardines in a can. And they would throw us in, and old Bull would say, “Take ’em off,” and they did; and we would just go in the paddy wagon singing, “We Shall Overcome.” And every now and then we’d get in jail, and we’d see the jailers looking through the windows being moved by our prayers, and being moved by our words and our songs. And there was a power there which Bull Connor couldn’t adjust to; and so we ended up transforming Bull into a steer, and we won our struggle in Birmingham.

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