by Todd Hasak-Lowy
On January 10, 1963, King and ten others gathered in secrecy at a retreat in Dorchester, Georgia. They were there to fine tune their plans for Project C.
“C” stood for “confrontation.”
The first lesson these activists took from Albany was the need to be in charge from the very beginning. They would no longer join a campaign already underway. The Dorchester group—which included King; his right-hand man, Ralph Abernathy; James Lawson, an expert in training nonviolent activists; and Wyatt Walker, who drafted the blueprint for the coming campaign—would choose not just the place, Birmingham, but the exact timing and the specific tactics as well.
Nonviolent resistance had a reputation as a spontaneous phenomenon, something as unpredictable as the weather. A bunch of people would grow outraged and suddenly take to the streets. The aim of Project C was not merely to overturn segregation in Birmingham, but also to demonstrate that different methods of nonviolent direct action could be coordinated in advance to achieve maximum effect.
Much like generals gathered in their headquarters and huddled over the map of a future battlefield, these leaders considered every tactic at their disposal and every obstacle they might face. Walker’s planning was so meticulous he knew precisely how long it would take activists of different ages and physical abilities to walk from the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church, Project C’s staging area, to various segregated lunch counters in downtown Birmingham.
Project C was to have four phases: sit-ins, boycotts, mass marches, and, finally, an influx of outsiders who would reinforce the local activists. The ultimate aim was to “cripple the city under the combined pressure of publicity, economic boycott, and the burden of over- flowing jails.” The stages were to be timed in such a way as to steadily increase the force of the campaign, to create, in King’s words, “a situation so crisis-packed” that the “pus-flowing ugliness” of segregation would burst open for all to see.
Project C wasn’t merely ambitious, it would be dangerous as well. The notorious Bull Connor had headed the Birmingham police force for most of the previous quarter century. Connor was a die-hard segregationist, determined to combat the civil rights movement no matter what it took. Two years earlier, in spring 1961, a group of white and black activists, known as the Freedom Riders, rode throughout the South to challenge the illegal segregation of interstate bus lines. As they reached the Birmingham bus terminal on May 14, Connor allowed local KKK members—who brought baseball bats, iron pipes, and chains with them—to have fifteen minutes alone with the riders before sending in the police. The violence spun out of control so quickly that seven innocent bystanders wound up in the hospital.
When asked why the police were slow to arrive, Connor responded that they were honoring Mother’s Day with their mothers.
King ended the Dorchester meeting by sharing a sober observation: “There are eleven people here assessing the type of enemy we’re going to face. I have to tell you that in my judgment, some of the people sitting here today will not come back alive from this campaign. And I want you to think about it.”
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A stirring look at nonviolent activism, from American suffragists to Civil Rights to the Climate Change Movement
We Are Power brings to light the incredible individuals who have used nonviolent activism to change the world. The book explores questions such as what is nonviolent resistance and how does it work? In an age when armies are stronger than ever before, when guns seem to be everywhere, how can people confront their adversaries without resorting to violence themselves? Through key international movements as well as people such as Gandhi, Alice Paul, Martin Luther King, Cesar Chavez, and Václav Havel, this book discusses the components of nonviolent resistance. It answers the question “Why nonviolence?” by showing how nonviolent movements have succeeded again and again in a variety of ways, in all sorts of places, and always in the face of overwhelming odds. The book includes endnotes, a bibliography, and an index.
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