The wave of demonstrations and marches by Birmingham's Negroes represents a radically new development in the fight for civil rights. The Administration's response indicates that it is unaware of the change in Martin Luther King's movement, his new determination not to end the agitation until his demands for full-scale integration are met. By merely calling for a "truce," and sending Justice Department staff-member Burke white down to Birmingham to talk with city officials, Attorney General Kennedy has failed to meet King's real challenge.
The militance of King and his followers suggests that they are unlikely to comply with the Attorney General's request for a cooling-off period. On the contrary, they began their current campaign because they are tired of waiting after nine years of cooling off. Kennedy's statement Saturday can only incourage them in their disillusionment with the federal government.
There have always been militant activists among civil rights workers, men and women without any confidence in the federal government's commitment to racial equality. The events in Birmingham suggest that this sentiment has spread to the city's Negro population generally; and that Negroes in other cities and towns may also be about to give up on the Kennedy administration. They are tired of having o fight as hard for government's attention as they must to secure their rights.
The danger posed by such a state of mind is obvious. If this country's Negroes were wholly disaffected from the federal government, they could only continue their fight by methods which would almost surely provoke widespread violence. The disorder in Birmingham, though regrettable, is mild even by present standards--there have been no shootings, no serous injuries. The federal government's attempt to bring it to an end, before King's demands have been met, would have far more frightening consequences.
The Birmingham demonstrations confront the Administration with a choice: either it makes absolutely clear its championship of the Negroes' cause, or it leaves them to their own efforts. It may be too late for the President to regain for the government a position of leadership in the fight for civil rights; but he must recognize that, as matters stand, the government has been left far behind, and is barely considered a participant in the fight. The Negroes are evidently willing to take physical risks of great seriousness rather than move towards equality at the President's cautious pace. The events in Birmingham make it clear that the President's must take political risks of a similar magnitude. He must make a major public address, on television or before Congress, identifying his position with King's. At the very least, he should demand that Birmingham's police refrain from interfering with the Negro demonstrators. He should make clear his belief that such interference is only designed to prevent the Negroes from securing their constitutional rights.
The Birmingham demonstrations have forced the President's hand. His failure to defend the demonstrators publicly would not retard their efforts; and it might turn them against the democratic system itself. If the President and his brother ignore the real significance of "Birmingham," they will forfeit their influence on Negro action in the South.