Recognizing a lesser-known civil rights icon
Fifty-six years ago, on a humid Sunday in early May, thousands of African American congregants walked calmly out of the New Pilgrim Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, and headed toward the city jail.
Two days earlier, on Friday, May 3, 1963, people across the U.S. gazed in horror at images projected on their televisions and printed in newspapers of young black students in Birmingham being attacked by police dogs and pummeled with blasts from firehoses.
When civil rights leaders there saw that city officials were still willing to use violence as a means to end a demonstration, even when the protestors were children, adults who had previously feared losing their jobs or having their homes bombed turned out in droves to participate in the march from New Pilgrim.
Eventually, the crowd reached a barricade of fire trucks and police, where it came to a standstill. Suddenly, they dropped to their knees, one after another, in prayer. In response, the police ordered them all back to the church.
Slowly, a tall, lanky man at the front of the crowd rose to his feet and announced that they would not turn back.
“Turn on the hoses! Turn loose the dogs!” the man told Theophilus Eugene “Bull” Connor, Birmingham’s commissioner of public safety. “We will stay here till we die!”
Connor accepted the man’s proposal and ordered the firefighters to turn on their hoses.
Ignoring Connor’s repeated demands, they made way for the crowd to pass. Leading them through what has since been called the second parting of the Red Sea, was the man who had refused to turn back — Charles Billups.
Keith Miller, a professor of English at Arizona State University, called the moment nothing less than “a major pivot in American history,” and one that prompted President John F. Kennedy only a couple of months later to propose what would become the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
Tuesday, July 2, marks the 55th anniversary of the enactment of the law, which ended segregation in public places and banned employment discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, sex or national origin.
Yet despite the magnitude of what happened that Sunday in 1963, Billups’ name is not easily recognizable, even to those most familiar with the history of the civil rights movement. Seeking to rectify that, Miller and Billups’ daughter, Rene Billups Baker, co-wrote “My Life with Charles Billups and Martin Luther King: Trauma and the Civil Rights Movement,” published earlier this year.
Miller credits Billups’ show of grace and fortitude in the face of hatred and violence as a crucial factor in the success of the New Pilgrim march — as did Martin Luther King Jr., who was in Atlanta that day.
Upon hearing about the march, King described it as “one of the most fantastic events of the Birmingham story.”
“Martin Luther King, the avatar of nonviolence, said this march showed him the ‘pride and power of nonviolence’ for the first time,” Miller said.
In the book, Billups Baker writes that King and other civil rights leaders trusted her father to lead the New Pilgrim march because “they realized … that he was an exemplar of nonviolence.”
For all the apparent pride Billups Baker takes in sharing her father’s story, it wasn’t until a cancer-related surgery nearly resulted in her death that she began to speak about it publicly, as his last surviving relative and therefore the only one who could. Years before, after her father was murdered in 1968, a crime that remains unsolved, Billups Baker’s mother warned her to never speak of it.
“Over and over my mother kept telling me that I could never talk about my father’s murder to anyone,” Billups Baker writes. “So I didn’t. And I didn’t talk about civil rights either.”
Then, in 2013, she did. And Miller, who had been invited to speak on the subject at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, saw an interview she gave to a local TV station while researching her father ahead of his visit. Immediately, he began calling and emailing Billups Baker, over and over.
Finally, she emailed him back.
Miller met with Billups Baker at her home in Birmingham, where they spoke for hours.
“She was going on about her father and Martin Luther King,” Miller recalls. “It was almost like yesterday to her. I never met anyone who remembers her childhood near as vividly as she did. And she had a lot of trauma, which is one reason she remembered so much.”
While some parts of the story she told Miller were happy memories, like the time King brought her and her sisters ice cream cones as they waited for their father to finish with a strategy meeting, others were grim, like the time her father was severely beaten by members of the Ku Klux Klan.
“I read civil rights literature pretty exhaustively,” Miller said. “There's almost nothing about the trauma the children suffered. … Another thing that’s extremely important about the movement that I don’t think most people understand is that these were ordinary people, blue collar people. Because African American doctors and lawyers didn't want to anger the white majority and risk losing their jobs. So to me, a big lesson of the movement is the power of ordinary people to affect huge change.”
That lesson is something Miller wishes more Americans were taught growing up.
“I think people have been taught American history very badly,” he said. And while he still regards King’s “I Have a Dream Speech” with all due reverence, he believes to focus only on those sort of “beautiful” aspects of the civil rights movement is a mistake.
“It prettifies and falsifies history because it gives people the impression that if you give a beautiful speech, where nobody gets arrested — because it was very peaceable — that that’s how you change the country,” Miller said.
“But that’s not what happened. That’s a sanitized version of history that flatters the white majority. It’s why we still have recurring racism. Because people have not understood the depth, the recalcitrance and the horror of racism throughout American history, from Day 1.”
Top photo: President Lyndon Johnson signs the Civil Rights Act of 1964 into law as Martin Luther King Jr. looks on. Photo courtesy Pixabay