Eugene Connor, 'Bull' to his friends, was the Public Safety Commissioner and police chief for Birmingham, Alabama
during the first half of the 1960's. By all rights, he should not be remembered by the world at large; after all, he was just the head policeman for a medium-sized Southern city, and only that for 6 years. But his actions on one early May week in 1963 put his name in the history books for many years to come.
On May 7, 1963, Martin Luther King, Jr., declared war on segregation. His plan was to lead the largest nonviolent protest in American history in Birmingham, which was often considered to be the most heavily segregated city in the South. The protests went off with only a few little hitches; by and large, protesters kept themselves to a strict diet of prayer and stolid marching in the streets. Very few were involved in any violence.
The problem was the fear of violence in the white leadership. Bull Connor, in an attempt to clear up the protests, first ordered all of his officers on the scene with full gear, dogs, and fire equipment. Then, when the protesters were not cowed, he ordered that the dogs be set loose and the firehoses be turned on the protesters.
The dogs did not do much damage, but the water, cranked to a paint-stripping pressure of 800 psi, was undeniably brutal. One of King's right hand men, the Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth, was lifted off the ground and slammed into a brick wall by a single blast of water. The Reverend was taken away in an ambulance; Connor was heard to remark that he 'had waited all day for that', and was disappointed that the Reverend 'was not taken away in a hearse'.
Connor was apparently aware of how Birmingham's segregation was portrayed on that powerful new medium, television, and was just months before part of a group that was attempting to show the 'good' of segregation through the telly. He was aware of the power of television. That's why it's odd that he allowed television crews to film the protests and his brutal reaction against seemingly nonviolent people. The media (quite rightly) portrayed the acts as nothing more than the worst brutality in America, ever. Martin Luther King won most of his later support based off of those images in Birmingham. John F. Kennedy remarked that the two most important white people in the fight for Civil Rights were Abraham Lincoln and Bull Connor; both advanced the cause of Civil Rights immensely.
The media portrayed Bull Connor as a Southern monster, ready to take advantage of any black person near him... but the man is a little bit more of an enigma than that. Although his words and deeds in the week of May 7, 1963 unquestionably showed him to be a brutal man, some say he was simply pressured by outside forces to put down the protests at all costs, and that the ultra-segregationist governor of Alabama at the time, George Wallace, had all but ordered the acts of violence himself. How much Connor was forced into the use of brutality is not known, but he still ordered the beatings of Freedom Riders two years later without any apparent provocation from anyone (and he was tossed out of office for this offense).
The most enigmatic aspects of Connor and his relationship with the black people would be revealed a decade later, when his church, Woodlawn Church of Birmingham, installed John Rutland as the pastor. Rutland was black. Connor once stood up in church and declared that he 'wasn't gonna listen to no n----- preaching', and once attempted to stop Rutland from entering his own church to preach... but Rutland later remembered that Connor was often 'boisterously friendly' with him in both private and public, often making self-deprecating jokes around Rutland. This Connor revealed in Rutland's memoirs is somewhat at odds with the media portrayal of Connor the monster, the Connor of the dogs and the fire hoses. Maybe the man was not as bad as we all think he is. But that does not make up for the pain he visited on thousands of nonviolent protesters in 1963.
Listen, it's 4:00 AM, and I gotta wake up in 3 1/2 hours... I'll hardlink this guy later, OK?