Saturday, June 01, 2024

You Have to Be Prepared to Die Before You Can Begin to Live by Paul Kix

You Have to Be Prepared to Die Before You Can Begin to Live by Paul Kix is an excellent work of nonfiction subtitled Ten Weeks in Birmingham that Changed America. Kix starts the book talking about what it was like for he and his wife Sonya as an interracial couple with kids in 2020, when George Floyd was murdered in Minneapolis, MN by Police Officer Derek Chauvin. Kix focuses on a pivotal place and period of time in 1963, where the events in Birmingham, AL helped bring about the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and provides fascinating reading of the inflection points that triggered events happening. 

In January 1963, leaders from the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) met in Savannah, GA. Participants including Wyatt Walker, Fred Shuttleworth, James Bevel, and Martin Luther King Jr. met to plan a campaign to end segregation in the city of Birmingham, led by Public Safety Commissioner Bull Connor. The SCLC had suffered a defeat in an effort in Albany, GA, where police recognized the need to not be seeing being brutal to blacks, neutralizing any public story. SCLC leaders intended to model the nonviolence shown by Ghandi, and shock America into changing. They planned a four-stage effort, starting with sit-ins at businesses, and then a boycott of the downtown business district by black citizens. The third stage was to be a protest march, and fourth much larger marches that would come from people seeing the brutality suffered by protestors and joining them en masse. The plan was contingent upon white people heaping abuse, and black people taking it and not fighting back.

The ten-week campaign started out known as Project X, for X marking the spot of confrontation, and transitioned into Project C, for confrontation. Money was needed for the effort and covered in the book is famous people like Harry Belafonte trying to raise for the cause, and Fred Shuttlesworth at a fundraiser in New York uttered the line the book title came from, with this helping raise $475K that night for the campaign. Things got off to a slow start, without a huge amount of support from the black community in Birmingham, as to be involved was to risk their livelihoods, freedom, and safety. The SCLC needed to antagonize Bull Connor and others in position of white power in order to have images of brutality captured and broadcast by the press. At first Connor was holding back, but then he resorted to violence, unleashing police dogs on marchers, leading to the famous photograph from May 3 of a police dog appearing to lunge at a young black man, Walter Gadsen. 

An injunction was issued saying that the black community couldn’t march or they would go to jail, and while daunting, this proved to be a trigger helping the effort be successful. Martin Luther King, Jr. led a march, was arrested, and wrote Letter from Birmingham Jail, which would become famous as a rallying cry for the cause. Then there was an outreach to black youth in Birmingham, enlisting them to march, and in one day, 973 children were arrested and jailed. The news showed the arrests and attacks on black marchers, with fire hoses spraying down children. This garnered national attention, including from Bobby and John F. Kennedy in the White House, and in Birmingham, some numbers of firefighters became unwilling to spray black children for simply marching and singing.  On May 6 there had been over 4,000 arrests, 2,500 of them children. Eventually the city of Birmingham backed down from some of its racist actions, and the brokering of segregation in the city then spread to other cities. As the eventual Civil Rights Act of 1964 was being put together, Kennedy himself said to black leaders, “but for Birmingham, we wouldn’t be here today.”