In 1963, Birmingham, Alabama was the most thoroughly segregated city in America. The Southern Christian Leadership Conference, at the invitation of the Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth, the Pastor of Bethel Baptist Church and the President of the Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights, began to organize for a major campaign to desegregate the city.
Fresh with wounds from Albany, Georgia, where SCLC had lost their efforts to achieve wide scale desegregation, King and the leaders of the movement began to carefully plot out their strategy for how to desegregate Birmingham. The most valuable lesson they believed that they learned was to target their efforts of desegregation at one entity as opposed to spreading it across everything. In Birmingham they chose boycotting the businesses.
Around the same time that movement leaders planned to execute their plans, there was a race for the mayor of the city. Eugene “Bull” Connor and Albert Boutwell ended up in a run-off and SCLC was forced to further delay their efforts. By the first week of April, the run-off race was held and Boutwell, known as a “mild segregationist” was elected the new mayor. Despite his win, Connor and other current city leaders refused to give up office for a whole year. Birmingham locals described Birmingham as operating under two governments.
It is in this context, of a delayed mayoral transition and intense political tension, that SCLC began the Birmingham Campaign. 250 people were organized to demonstrate in the streets and the black people of Birmingham would boycott all the business of the city until segregation fell.
The plan was executed nearly perfectly until Dr. King received a phone call on Holy Thursday. Their bondsman, who was to pay the bail of all those arrested, was informed by the city that his financial assets were insufficient. The Birmingham campaign was sunk before they could even begin. Dr. King and Rev. Abernathy were supposed to be arrested on Good Friday and get out of jail before Easter Sunday to make it back to their churches to preach and be at home with their families for this holiday. Without the bail, there would not be enough money to get them or anyone out of jail before Easter. That Holy Thursday night, Dr. King and his leaders all knew that Dr. King couldn’t get arrested if the movement was to go on.
Dr. King retells this story in his autobiography when he says deep in the night he went to the back of the suite of his hotel. He thought about the 250 people who he had led to sign up to be arrested to join in the fight. He also thought about his family and how his wife had given birth to their child just earlier that week and how he needed to be with them. But then he says he also thought about the Black people of Birmingham and the 20 million Negroes “waiting to someday cross the red sea of injustice and find their way into the promise land of integration and freedom”. And it was there, in Room 30 on Good Friday at the Gaston Motel, that Dr. King decided he must demonstrate, get arrested, and spend Easter Sunday in a Birmingham Jail.
Dr. King and Rev. Abernathy, both pastors, husbands, and fathers, along with hundreds of other ordinary folks in Birmingham spent Holy Week of 1963 in roach infested jails of the American South. They spent Good Friday in prison, Holy Saturday in a dungeon, and even Easter Sunday in the tomb of injustice. But these courageous leaders, despite their sorrow, pain, and loneliness, didn’t let their confinement kill their spirits. Far from it, it is from this jail cell in Birmingham Easter weekend that Dr. King penned one of the most profound documents in American history, The Letter from a Birmingham Jail.
This Holy Week and Easter Season, I cannot help but think how the world was forever changed because of a decision a courageous leader made in Room 30 on Good Friday. A month later, that motel room and A.D. King’s parsonage (Dr. King’s brother in law) were bombed in the hopes of killing both King and the motel owner A.G. Gaston who was a Civil Rights benefactor. Both were unharmed.
I have no idea what rooms we will occupy this Good Friday, Holy Saturday, Easter Sunday, but I pray that we might too find the courage to make decisions that allow the Holy Spirit to empower us with a spirit that might change the world and save the soul of our nation which is seriously dying from the wounds of racial and social injustice. May we also know that whatever acts of courage are required, God will be with us, as she was with Martin King in Room 30 and as he was with Jesus Christ on Good Friday.
Rev. Elijah R. Zehyoue is the Director of Programs and Communications at NBC