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Theophilus Eugene "Bull" Connor (July 11 1897, Selma, Alabamamarker, USA – March 10 1973) was a Democratic Party politician and police official from the city of Birminghammarker, Alabamamarker, during the American Civil Rights Movement.

As the Public Safety Commissioner of Birmingham, Alabamamarker, in the 1960s, Connor became a symbol of bigotry. He infamously fought against integration by using fire hoses, police attack dogs, and even a small tank against protest marchers. His aggressive tactics backfired when the spectacle of the brutality being broadcast on national television served as one of the catalysts for major social and legal change in the South and helped in large measure to assure the passage by the United States Congress of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

Early career

Connor entered politics in 1934, winning a seat in the Alabama legislature. Connor's vocal skills also served him during a stint as the radio broadcaster for the local minor league baseball team, the Birmingham Barons. That position had developed after he had made a name for himself by using a megaphone to forward telegraph reports of baseball games to Birmingham pool halls.

In 1936, Connor was elected to the office of police commissioner, beginning the first of two stretches that spanned a total of 26 years. Connor's first term ended in 1952, but he resumed the post four years later.

In 1948, Connor's officers arrested U.S. Senator from Idahomarker, Glen H. Taylor, the running mate of Progressive presidential candidate (and former Democratic Vice President) Henry Wallace. Taylor, who had attempted to speak to the Southern Negro Youth Congress, was arrested for violating Birmingham's segregation laws.

Connor's concerted effort to enforce the law was sparked by the group's reported Communist philosophy, with Connor noting at the time, "There's not enough room in town for Bull and the Commies." During the Democratic National Convention that year, Connor led the Alabama delegation in a walkout when the party included a civil rights plank in its platform.

In 1950, Connor became a Democratic candidate for Governor of Alabama. He announced he would be campaigning on a platform of "protecting employment practices, law enforcement, segregation and other problems that have been historically classified as states' rights by the Democratic party." That bid, along with another attempt in 1954, would fail, but Connor remained a focal point of controversy that year by pushing through a new city ordinance in Birmingham that outlawed Communism.

In late 1951, Connor became embroiled in a feud with city detective Henry Darnell after Connor's wife reportedly saw an incident of police brutality. Connor investigated and charged Darnell with conduct unbecoming an officer. The issues between the two men truly exploded on December 26 when Connor was arrested after being found in a hotel room with his 34-year-old secretary, Christina Brown, following a Christmas party five days earlier. Claiming he was set up, Connor nonetheless was convicted, fined $100 and given a 180-day sentence. Impeachment proceedings followed soon after, but on June 11, 1952, the conviction was thrown out by the Alabama Court of Criminal Appeals. The surrounding controversy led Connor to announce that he would not run again for the city commissioner position.

Civil Rights era

After returning to office in 1956, Connor quickly resumed his heavy-handed approach to dealing with perceived threats. One prominent instance came when a meeting at the Reverend Fred Shuttlesworth's house with three Montgomerymarker ministers was raided, with Connor fearing that a spread of the bus boycott that had succeeded in Montgomery was imminent. The ministers were arrested for vagrancy, which did not allow a prisoner bail, nor any visitors during the first three days of their incarceration. A federal investigation followed, but Connor refused to cooperate.

Shuttlesworth had been frequently in danger in the previous two years, having seen his church bombed twice. He, his wife and a white minister were also attacked by a mob after attempting to use white restrooms at the local bus station.

In 1960, Connor was elected Democratic National Committee man for Alabamamarker, soon after filing a lawsuit against the New York Times for $1.5 million, for what he said was insinuating that he had promoted racial hatred. Later dropping the amount to $400,000, the case would drag on for six years until Connor lost a $40,000 judgment on appeal.

In November 1962, Birmingham voters changed the city's form of government, with the mayor now working with nine councilmen instead of three county commissioners. The move had been in response to the extremely negative perception of the city (which had been derisively nicknamed "Bombingham") among outsiders. The most prominent example of this continuing embarrassment came in 1961 when the president of the city's Chamber of Commerce was visiting Japan, only to see a newspaper photo of a Birmingham bus engulfed in flames.

Endorsed by the Governor of Alabama, Connor attempted to run for mayor, but lost on April 2, 1963. Bull and his fellow commissioners then filed suit to block the change in power, but on May 23, the Alabama Supreme Courtmarker ruled against Connor's position, ending his 23-year tenure in the post. Birminghammarker had voted to change from a commission form of government to a mayor-council form of government. Connor, citing a general law, contended that the change could not take effect until the October 1 following the date of the election, but the Supreme Court of Alabama held that the general law was preempted by a special law applicable only to the City of Birmingham.

The day after the April election, civil rights leaders, led by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., began "Project 'C'" (for "confrontation") in Birmingham against the police tactics used by Connor and his subordinates (and, by extension, other Southern police officials). King's arrest during this period would provide him the opportunity to write his famous Letter from Birmingham Jail. The goal of this movement was to cause mass arrests and subsequent inability of the judicial and penal systems to deal with this volume of activity. One key strategy was the use of children to further the cause, a tactic that was criticized on both sides of the issue. The short-term effect only increased the level of violence used by Connor's officers, but in the long term the project proved largely successful, as noted above.

Later career

On June 3, 1964, Connor resumed his place in government when he was elected to the post of Alabama Public Service Commission director. He suffered a stroke on December 7, 1966, that left him confined to a wheel chair for the rest of his life, but was part of history on February 16, 1968, when he was present at the Haleyville, Alabamamarker, police station for the first ever use of 9-1-1 as an emergency telephone number in the United Statesmarker. Months later, Connor won another term, but was defeated in 1972, putting an end to his long political career.

Another stroke on February 26, 1973, weeks before his death, left him unconscious, and he died in March of that year. Survivors included his widow, Beara, a daughter, and a brother, King Edward Connor.

Legacy

Spike Lee's documentary 4 Little Girls (about the 16th Street Baptist Church bombingmarker in Alabama in 1963) includes footage of Connor and interviews with people describing police brutality under his watch.

References

  1. PBS's Eyes on the Prize segment, including video of Connor.
  2. Connor's Tank Returns to Birmingham
  3. "Eugene 'Bull' Connor Dies at 75", Associated Press, March 11, 1973
  • Nunnelley, William A. (1991) Bull Connor. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press. ISBN 0817304959
  • Connor v. State ex rel. Boutwell, 275 Ala. 230, 153 So. 2d 787 (1963) (decision of the Supreme Court of Alabama holding that the City of Birmingham could change from a commission form of government to a mayor-council form of government and thereby unseat Connor).


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