By Tanya Palmer
Playwright Tracey Scott Wilson was inspired to write a play about the American civil rights movement that went beyond the familiar stories to take an honest look at the movement’s complex personalities and conflicts. She soon found herself struggling with guilt, however, as she portrayed her heroes as real human beings—flaws and all. While the characters and some of the specific events in The Good Negro are fictionalized, the troubled history that inspired the play is all too real.
Set in Birmingham, AL, in the early 1960s, the play begins with a shocking act of intolerance that sparks a series of events that threaten to tear apart the alliance between three powerful black leaders. As critic Mark Blankenship writes, “They try to rally their community, but their efforts are hampered not only by the KKK and the FBI, but also by their own classism, infighting and vice.”
The play began to come together for Wilson when she had a revelation that the leaders of the civil rights movement were extraordinary because of their flaws, not in spite of them. “They weren’t saints,” she explains, “yet every day they made the decision to keep going. To me, that’s inspiration. So I hope I’m honoring these leaders by showing their complexity. When you show them as saints, it just seems too easy.”
The events that inspired The Good Negro are anything but easy. In 1962, Birmingham, AL was at a crucial turning point. The city’s black citizens had long struggled against the injustices of segregation, such as the lack of access to adequate housing, health care, education and other basic services. They faced a corrupt police force and a complicit justice system. Some progress had been made through the 1950s, but the gains were modest and came at a very high price. When blacks did organize to protest against the people and systems that oppressed them, they faced violent reprisals; their homes were bombed, and they were beaten and killed. The city earned the nickname “Bombingham.”
A critical figure in preserving the segregationist status quo was T. Eugene “Bull” Connor, Birmingham’s commissioner of public safety from 1937 to 1953 and again from 1957 to 1963. His years in office were marked by abuse of power and poor management; he was later described as “a failure as an executive who cracks the whip of authority, but uses no persuasion, logic or reason.”
What Connor did have in abundance was a passion for enforcing racial segregation. He developed an extensive network of informers to keep him posted on the efforts of black activists and white liberals, and he promoted those policemen whose segregationist zeal and personal subservience satisfied him. In 1963, Connor decided to run for mayor with the endorsement of the pro-segregationist governor of Alabama, George Wallace. During the lead up to this election, the seeds of dissent began to bear fruit in Birmingham.
A key figure in the growing radicalism of the local black community was the Reverend Fred Shuttlesworth, a pastor at Birmingham’s Bethel Baptist Church. In 1955, he became involved in a movement that demanded the city government hire black policemen; he circulated a petition at a conference of black Baptist ministers, requesting that the organization endorse the action. An older generation of black ministers opposed him on the grounds that his proposal was too controversial. This disagreement set the stage for a battle over leadership in the black community that would play out over the next several years.
In 1956, Shuttlesworth became the president of the newly-formed Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights, a militant organization that rose out of the ashes of the Birmingham chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). The previously unknown Shuttlesworth quickly became a leading figure in Birmingham’s black community; he took to his new role with a vengeance, describing himself as a “caged rat” seeking opportunities to fight back against the social system he detested. The KKK bombed his house on Christmas day in 1956, but he managed to escape with only a few cuts and bruises, supporting his conviction that his actions were the will of God.
While tensions were building in Birmingham, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) were fighting segregation in Albany, Georgia. Led by a coalition of local activists and national civil rights organizations, the movement, which took place between 1961 and 1962, mobilized thousands of citizens and attracted nationwide attention, though it ultimately failed to realize its goals. One critical factor in its failure was Albany’s police chief, Laurie Pritchett, who arrested protesters en masse, but avoided violent incidents that would attract national publicity—and the attention of the government in Washington. The vivid photographs of protesters being beaten and buses burning that had emerged during the Freedom Rides two years earlier drew the nation’s—and President Kennedy’s—eyes to the injustices of southern racism. There were no such photographs in Albany, however, and the president showed no interest in bolstering the movement’s cause.
Aware of the attention King could bring to Birmingham’s struggle, Fred Shuttlesworth made a personal appeal to King and the SCLC to join his fight for justice. King and his colleagues—like SCLC Executive Director Wyatt Tee Walker and King’s friend and confidante Ralph Abernathy—planned to apply the lessons they had learned in Albany to Birmingham. Wyatt Walker was hopeful that Bull Connor, with his hair-trigger temper, would offer the country a more graphic portrayal of the brutality of southern racism. While Connor represented an opportunity, however, his history of violence also made him an enormous threat. Andrew Young, who played a critical role as a negotiator during the Birmingham campaign, remembers King’s trepidation at taking on any new commitment: “He knew… that every time he made a commitment to something like this he was committing his life… He thought in everything he did it meant his death.”
While King prepared to face a public enemy in Birmingham, a more covert war against him was taking shape. J. Edgar Hoover, the powerful director of the FBI, regarded civil rights leaders with suspicion. He and his agents had cooperated with Bull Connor in closing down the Southern Negro Youth Congress, and in 1953, the Bureau opened a Communist-infiltration investigation of the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), the group that went on to organize the Freedom Rides in 1961. When the Freedom Riders arrived in Birmingham in May 1961, they were met by a mob of Klansmen, organized by Birmingham Police Sergeant Tom Cook and Bull Connor. As the riders exited the bus they were beaten with baseball bats, iron pipes and bicycle chains. One of their assailants was Garrett Thomas Rowe, Jr., an FBI informant whose participation in the beatings was covered up by the Bureau, effectively shielding the Klan from prosecution. This compelling and little-known historical figure plays a critical role in Wilson’s play.
J. Edgar Hoover targeted King in his investigation; every intelligence-gathering technique at the Bureau’s disposal was employed in his “war” against King and the SCLC. He even ordered microphones to be hidden in King’s hotel and motel rooms in an attempt to obtain information about the “private activities of King and his advisers.” Internally, the FBI justified their investigation through Communist Infiltration (COMINFIL), which permitted the investigation of legitimate noncommunist organizations suspected of having been infiltrated by communists, and later through the Counter Intelligence Program (COINTELPRO), which directed FBI agents to “expose, disrupt, misdirect, discredit or otherwise neutralize” the activities of the movement and their leaders. Hoover’s vendetta against King became increasingly personal through the years; in 1965, he described King as the “most notorious liar” in America and “one of the lowest characters in the country.” King responded swiftly, but he and his closest aides knew that Hoover had obtained potentially damaging material about his marital infidelity through wiretaps and hotel buggings, which complicated the SCLC’s ability to launch a counterattack.
Birmingham’s mayoral election was scheduled for March 5, 1963. The movement was pressured not to stage protests prior to the election, so the SCLC settled on a target date of March 14 for the protests to begin. The election results threw a wrench into their play however. None of the three candidates won a majority, so a runoff was scheduled between Connor and the relatively moderate former Lieutenant Governor Albert Boutwell. On April 2, Birmingham voters gave Boutwell a decisive victory over Connor, sparking the Birmingham News to proclaim, “A New Day Dawns for Birmingham,” and a group of protesters initiated lunch-counter sit-ins the next day. A handful were arrested and King called for a boycott of the white downtown stores. But despite public statements to the contrary, the SCLC was having difficulty recruiting the number of potential demonstrators it had anticipated. The problem was rooted in Fred Shuttlesworth’s controversial stature among Birmingham blacks. Respect for his courage universal, but respect for his judgment and emotional stability was not. As one sympathetic friend described him, “Shuttlesworth sees himself as taking orders only from God who speaks to him and through him… [which made him] difficult for more sophisticated people to appreciate.”
King made personal appeals to influential local leaders, calling for mass demonstrations. The next day King’s brother A.D. led a small march, and Bull Connor, still public safety commissioner, displayed one of the heavy-handed weapons that Wyatt Walker had been hoping for when they began their campaign in Birmingham: a squad of snarling police dogs. One black bystander lunged at a dog with a knife and, as The New York Times describes, “the dog immediately attacked and there was a rush of other Negroes toward the spot where the dog had pinned the man to the ground. Policemen with two more dogs and other policemen who were congregated in the area quickly rushed against the crowd, swinging clubs.” A fellow activist recalls Walker’s reaction soon after this incident: “They were jumping up and down, elated. They said, over and over again, ‘We’ve got a movement. We’ve got a movement. We had some police brutality. They brought out the dogs. We’ve got a movement.’”
A few days later, King and Ralph Abernathy were arrested as they marched toward city hall. King was placed in solitary confinement at the city jail and photos of his arrest were flashed around the world, drawing the attention of the Kennedy administration back to Birmingham. The most critical turning point came when SCLC organizer James Bevel made a push to recruit and train teenagers to demonstrate. Walker was confident that the masses of young people and the interest of black adults would evoke segregationist brutality from Connor. It had been several days since King’s arrest, and the press was starting to lose interest. King was hesitant to unleash untrained teenagers, but Bevel and Walker convinced him. “At times I would accommodate or alter my morality for the sake of getting a job done,” Walker later explained. “I wasn’t dealing with a moral situation when I dealt with Bull Connor. We did with design precipitate crisis in order to expose what the black community was up against. There was premeditation and calculated design in that for which I don’t think we ever made any apologies.”
More than 500 young marchers were taken into custody, and Birmingham was back in the headlines. The next day, Connor once again delivered what they had hoped for: a graphic portrayal of the brutality of southern racism. As young demonstrators headed toward City Hall, a group of black onlookers gathered and hurled taunts at the white officers. Connor was on the scene and ordered six police dogs to force the crowd back. When his order roused the hostility of the onlookers, Connor instructed that high-pressure hoses be turned on the protestors. “I want to see the dogs work. Look at those niggers run,” one newsman quoted Connor as yelling. Striking photographs of the snarling dogs and the hoses appeared everywhere. Reactions to the images were strong and members of one group that visited President Kennedy stated that the photos had made the President “sick.” Walker’s words had been prescient: “We’ve got a movement. We’ve got a movement. We had some police brutality. They brought out the dogs. We’ve got a movement.”
Three months later, King delivered his historic “I have a dream” speech on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. But the fight was not yet over: less than a month after the March on Washington, Birmingham’s Sixteenth Street Baptist Church—a frequent gathering place for King, Shuttlesworth and other movement leaders during their campaign in Birmingham—was bombed, killing four young girls. Like the murder of Emmett Till in 1955, the death of these innocent children galvanized public opinion against the segregationists. Sweeping civil rights legislation was signed into law the following year.