In 1957, three years after the Supreme Court ruled in Brown v. Board of Education that segregated schools were unconstitutional, the schools in Birmingham, Alabama remained segregated. State officials refused to comply with the Court's ruling and in fact maintained one of the strictest systems of segregation in the country. Birmingham city ordinances made it illegal for blacks and whites to sit together in any public facility, from courtrooms to classrooms, and these laws were often enforced with violence.
Evidence in the Brown case underscored the fact that black schools were unequal to white schools, and the schools in Birmingham were no exception. Jefferson County spent twice as much on white schools as on black schools. As a result of inadequate funding, black schools were older and overcrowded and had fewer resources than white schools.
In 1957, World War II veteran and civil rights leader James Armstrong joined eight other black parents to file a class action lawsuit against the Birmingham Board of Education to integrate the public schools. Their actions were risky. The Ku Klux Klan, a white supremacist paramilitary group known for its terrorist tactics against African Americans, maintained a large presence in Alabama, with influential ties to city and state officials.
Armstrong v. Birmingham Board of Education moved slowly through the courts. Alabama's lower courts ruled against the black parents, but Armstrong persisted and appealed the case. In the summer of 1963, the United States Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals demanded that Birmingham's schools be integrated, and on August 19, a federal judge in Birmingham approved the school board's desegregation plan. The next day, Klansmen bombed the home of NAACP attorney Arthur Shores, even though he was not involved in the case.
Tensions ran high in Birmingham. The public school desegregation decision in the Armstrong case came just nine days before the March on Washington and three months after a nation watched in shock as white police officers used fire hoses and police dogs against nonviolent demonstrators. That summer Alabama governor George Wallace defied a federal order from President Kennedy and blocked the door of the University of Alabama to prevent two black students from enrolling. Wallace was challenged by a United States Justice Department official supported by federal troops, and the students were enrolled. In Washington, President Kennedy encouraged the drafting of civil rights legislation; on July 15, Wallace testified before Congress against the legislation.
The week before school started in Birmingham, Governor Wallace initiated a petition that more than 30,000 whites signed denouncing "mixed schools." But on September 4, Armstrong and his two sons entered a side door of the Graymont Elementary School to get registration forms. Angry whites, many of whom were affiliated with the Klan, protested in front of the school. Of the 345 white students, 45 attended classes that day.
During a tumultuous first week of school, Wallace closed the schools, only to be reminded by federal judges in Alabama that he did not have the power to defy a federal court order. Klansmen bombed the Shores home for a second time (Shores was not injured in either attack), as well as the home of A. G. Gaston, a prominent black businessman. On Monday, September 9, Wallace issued an executive order prohibiting the integration of Birmingham's public schools; state troopers stopped Armstrong and his sons on their way to Graymont School.
On Tuesday, September 10, President Kennedy federalized the Alabama National Guard to maintain order. That day, Dwight and Floyd Armstrong became the first black students to integrate Graymont Elementary School. Protests continued that week at Graymont and at nearby Ramsey High School, where Richard Walker became the first black student to integrate that school.
Retaliation was swift. On Sunday morning, September 15, a bomb tore through Birmingham's all-black 16th Street Baptist Church, a central meeting place for civil rights activists. Dozens were injured in the blast, and four young girls -- Carole Robertson, Cynthia Wesley, Addie Mae Collins, and Denise McNair -- were killed. Birmingham's schools were ultimately integrated, but at a high price.
By the end of 1963, Birmingham's segregation ordinances were eliminated. Decades later, three Klansmen were convicted for the bomb attack and the murder of the four girls.