In the first week of May 1963, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. faced a painful dilemma as he sought to conclude the great Birmingham, Ala., campaign. The labor movement helped solve this dilemma and a great civil rights victory was won. Jerome A. "Buddy" Cooper, my mentor in the Birmingham union law firm where I worked years later, told me and others of his small but fascinating role in these events. It’s a story of how our labor movement has sometimes lived up to its role in the larger civil and human rights movement.
Weeks of massive civil rights protest marches had led Alabama Public Safety Commissioner Eugene "Bull" Connor to order vicious attacks on African American protesters, including school children, using police dogs and powerful fire hoses. The nation watched with revulsion as these violent attacks on plainly peaceful protesters were televised on the nightly news. As the attacks continued, the persistence, nonviolent discipline and courage of the local protesters, both adults and children, brought the movement to the cusp of achieving its first citywide victory in the fight to eliminate segregated bathrooms, drinking fountains and other public accommodations in the Deep South. King and the movement badly needed a victory in Birmingham after failing to achieve anything through mass marches in Albany, Georgia, the year before.
The attention of the whole world to these riveting events quickly created a political and international crisis for the John F. Kennedy administration, which regarded the civil rights movement as a distraction from its electoral and legislative goals, and as an embarrassment on the world stage. The president and his brother, Attorney General Robert Kennedy, were forced to respond. They sent a senior representative to Birmingham to pressure both sides toward resolution.
On May 8, a tentative agreement was reached with merchants agreeing to desegregate public facilities and to implement modest employment goals in Birmingham’s downtown stores. But King threatened to blow up the deal because local authorities refused to reduce the exorbitant bail fees—about $240,000 (nearly $2 million today)—set for the release of the child protesters who, after being set upon by dogs and blasted head-over-heals down city streets by fire hoses, had been arrested and jailed on charges of disturbing the peace. Adult marchers already filled all surrounding jails (a key tactic of the movement), and the children were incarcerated in outdoor animal pens at the Alabama State Fairgrounds, exposed to the rainy and often chilly Alabama spring elements. Kennedy and the attorney general, along with King’s colleagues in the movement’s leadership, urged King to sign the agreement and worry about the jailed children later. They argued that victory would weaken Connor’s resolve and lead to the children’s early release once the furor abated, and that it was not worth risking the precarious agreement with the merchants who were being pressured by powerful forces to abandon the deal.
King would have none of it. Desperate as he was to declare victory, he dug in. He had addressed distraught parents in mass meetings in churches, assuring them their jailed children were "suffering for what they believe, and…to make this nation a better nation." He told them their children were involved in "a spiritual experience, to be welcomed, even longed for." Almost all the parents accepted this transcendent message as justification for allowing their eager children to take on terrifying roles in the streets and in jail, to advance the movement. King was not about to leave the children incarcerated in outdoor pens while he celebrated a victory. Robert Kennedy, worried that a continuing crisis would harm his brother’s re-election prospects, was furious, telling King repeatedly that his stubbornness "doesn’t really make a lot of sense." King returned fire, condemning publicly the administration’s inaction in the face of violations of federal law by Birmingham authorities, including arrests of African Americans sitting at the lunch counter in the federal building’s café. King also pointed out that the attorney general had raised more than $60 million to gain release of the Bay of Pigs prisoners, so this much smaller bail amount should be easy for him to handle.
King announced to reporters gathered from all over the world that if the settlement didn’t include release of the children, the deal was off and demonstrations would recommence the next day—May 9. The deadline arrived with no resolution—but no marches either—as frantic private negotiations continued.
The impasse was broken only when King and the attorney general, both under immense pressure, agreed to work together to raise the bail money. King called the famous black singer and activist Harry Belafonte, securing a pledge of $90,000. Robert Kennedy, in turn, called three union presidents: Walter Reuther of the UAW, George Meany of the AFL-CIO and David McDonald of the United Steelworkers (USW). Each agreed to contribute tens of thousands of dollars, as did Michael Quill of the Transport Workers (TWU) at Belafonte’s request. The National Maritime Union had earlier sent money as well. All the bail money had to be delivered and paid the next day—or else King would recommence the marches.
To implement this urgent plan, late that night USW General Counsel David Feller phoned Birmingham union lawyer Buddy Cooper. Feller wanted Cooper to accept delivery of the bail money the next morning and deposit it at a local bank that had agreed to post the bail while concealing the source of the funds. UAW lawyer Joseph Rauh would coordinate delivery of the money to Cooper.
Cooper had been the CIO’s first lawyer in the Deep South starting in the 1930s. He had represented several CIO unions in "Operation Dixie," the largely unsuccessful effort to organize the South. He had been the first law clerk to Justice Hugo Black on the U.S. Supreme Court, and the justice’s son, Hugo Jr., was one of Cooper’s law partners when Brown v. Board of Education was decided in 1954, drawing intense and almost universal local white hostility toward their union-side law firm as a result of Black joining the unanimous decision. Cooper accepted this scorn as a badge of honor, and he actively supported the civil rights movement for the rest of his life as he continued to help build the labor movement in the South.
But Cooper was taken aback by Feller’s request, pointing out that this use of union funds was probably unlawful and asking, "Why don’t the damn merchants put up the money?" Feller’s answer was that this was "what the president of the United States wants us to do." He advised Cooper that the president had directed the attorney general to phone the union presidents with the request. Cooper told me years later he figured he would have to rely on that lofty, but dubious, defense if the lawyers and union officials were all indicted under the Landrum–Griffin Act for using union dues money for this purpose and in this secret manner.
Cooper received the money by courier on the morning of May 10, and it was used to bail out the children. He recalled that Rauh later visited Birmingham and together they recovered most of the money after the criminal cases against the children were dismissed.
Late that same afternoon, after waiting many hours to confirm payment of the bail, King asked the local black leader the Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth to speak to the press. Shuttlesworth, fresh from the hospital after having been knocked down a stairwell by water from a fire hose during a march, began by telling the world, "The city of Birmingham has reached an accord with its conscience."
The agreement with the city of Birmingham became part of history, helping pave the way for passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, which codified federal protection for equal access to public accommodations and employment. Soon after the agreement in Birmingham was achieved, the world would be mesmerized when King published his "Letter from the Birmingham Jail," penned while he was in solitary confinement, where Connor had thrown him for nine days in April 1963, in an attempt to stop the Birmingham campaign.
In June 1963, President Kennedy finally added his eloquent voice in a televised address to the nation, endorsing for the first time the full range of civil rights goals, but before the end of the year he would be dead, along with four young girls killed in a Ku Klux Klan bombing of their Birmingham church. The years ahead saw yet more white violence—and more courage and suffering by activists—but the movement gained lasting momentum in Birmingham. In 1964, King led the movement to Selma to fight for voting rights, and in 1965, the new president, Lyndon B. Johnson, signed the Voting Rights Act.
The decisive and risky actions of the labor leaders in this matter, and of their lawyers, pale in comparison to the physical and moral courage of King, his colleagues, and especially the marching children and their parents. But Dave Feller, Buddy Cooper, Joe Rauh and many others proved in May of 1963 that the labor movement is best understood as the "workers division" of the larger movement for civil and human rights. Let us resolve anew to honor, protect and advance the efforts of those brave men, women, girls and boys who risked so much in the desperate but shining days of the movement a half-century ago.
This is a guest post from Jay Smith, a labor lawyer who has represented the United Steelworkers and other unions for more than 25 years.