On April 12, 1963, in Room 30 of the Gaston Motel in Birmingham, Ala., Martin Luther King Jr. met with his advisers. At stake was his future as a civil rights leader.
For almost 10 years King had fought for change in the South, but not very much had changed. He now believed that Birmingham was his last chance.
"He knew it was a dangerous situation — either he was going to step up to the plate in Birmingham or he … was gonna drop by the wayside as a leader," said Andrew Young, who helped King found the Southern Christian Leadership Conference in 1957.
Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Hedrick Smith recalls the importance of Birmingham in generating momentum in the civil rights movement. "The stakes in Birmingham were high not only because of Birmingham but Birmingham was a symbol and a signal to everybody else. If Birmingham changed then you could change any place," he said.
There had been so much violence against blacks in Birmingham that the black part of town was known as dynamite hill.
"Everybody was sort of intimidated in Birmingham and for very good reason," Young said.
King and his team tried to organize a larger campaign to break segregation. But most people were afraid to demonstrate. They were up against a notorious segregationist, Eugene Bull Connor, the commissioner of public safety. And Connor was winning.
In desperation, King allowed himself to be arrested. But even this did not light a spark. King stayed in jail for a week but there was no public outcry. King hoped that President Kennedy would intervene in Birmingham. The president did not.
When he got out of jail, King went back to speaking in churches, night after night, but the crowds began to dwindle. The movement in Birmingham was failing.
That April, the youngest and most radical member of King's staff, Rev. James Bevel, suggested that allowing young people to participate in the demonstrations might make a difference. "If you know you are oppressed it is your duty to act against that policy that you know violates your dignity. Now it doesn't determine what age you are when you can comprehend that. Whenever you can comprehend that, that's when you are supposed to take responsibility and act," Bevel said.
Black students in Birmingham of almost every age wanted to demonstrate, but King feared that the movement would be criticized for putting them in danger.
But on the afternoon of May 2nd, a day James Bevel called D-Day, some 50 students filed out of the 16th Street Baptist Church to demonstrate. By now, the police were accustomed to making daily arrests and these students would be no different.
But then another 50 appeared, and another 50, and another. By the end of the day, the police had arrested more than 600 students. The following day more than a thousand young people showed up to demonstrate.
Bull Connor realized he couldn't arrest them all. So he brought in the Fire Department with its high-powered hoses and he brought in police dogs.
The national press was watching as the young people assembled in the park across the street from the Baptist church.
The scene was violent mayhem. Kids were blasted with fire hoses, and attacked by the police dogs — all in front of the press.
Connor's response to the demonstrators literally washed away the last hope for preserving segregation.