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Father Foley, Rev. King, and the 'Letter from Birmingham Jail'

By Rob Holbert

DECEMBER 12, 2012



In the spring of 1963 the Civil Rights Movement was at a crossroads. Birmingham was the epicenter of the war against segregation, but victory was coming at a painfully slow pace. 

Sit-ins and boycotts had brought some gains and even helped lead to the formation of a new city government that would not include the hated Eugene "Bull” Connor, but substantive changes in the lives of the black citizenry were hard to see. The Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. and his colleagues in the Southern Christian Leadership Conference wanted to ratchet things up a notch by having more marches and protests — this time including women and children. 

King believed the time for waiting was over and in April 1963, the Birmingham protests began in earnest. Birmingham was in flux, with two city governments operating at the same time — a new government led by the less aggressive segregationist Albert Boutwell was in place, but the old leadership that included Bull Connor was still in office as well while courts sorted things out, so chaos reigned. 

King himself decided to violate city orders not to march and he landed in jail on April 12, the same day the local newspaper published an open letter entitled "A Call For Unity,” written by eight members of the local ministry, urging King to set aside direct action in favor of patience while the courts and the government leaders moved to end segregation. 

But King believed the time for waiting was over. 

That open letter led King to respond, penning the famed "Letter from Birmingham Jail,” in which he rejects the idea that black Americans should have to continue waiting for equality. And in that letter, he mentions a small, Jesuit school in Mobile that nine years earlier had broken with convention and quietly integrated. 

For most of the past 50 years, the context of King’s letter has been deemed a direct rebuttal to the "Call for Unity.” But a series of taped conversations between King and Spring Hill College’s Rev. Albert S. Foley, S.J., is shedding new light on King’s thought processes in the days before and after his arrest, the protests and the maelstrom of Birmingham and why he chose to single out the college’s accomplishments. 

As a Jesuit priest, Foley had been one of the most influential names in Alabama’s civil rights movement since the early ‘50s. The tapes of his conversations with King were first uncovered about a decade ago and are now being made public for the first time in preparation for the school’s recognition of its mention in the "Letter from Birmingham Jail” a half century ago. 

Foley and the Klan

Born in New Orleans in 1912, Foley grew up in a segregated world and by his own estimation rarely gave much thought to the chasm between the races. He carried the first and middle names of famed Confederate General Albert Sidney Johnston, for whom his grandfather had been a flag bearer. In his memoir "In the Shadow of the White Camellia: Reminiscences of a Tangle with Terrorists,” Foley recalls how one of his earliest memories was watching the film "Birth of a Nation” in which the Ku Klux Klan are depicted as heroes protecting the American way of life. 

"It gave me the firm conviction that anything they did was justified to stop brutal attacks on Southern white women,” Foley would write. 

His early feelings would prove ironic as Foley later would become not only a fervent advocate for racial equality, but also a major force against the Klan in Mobile, drawing angry letters and even attempted violence. 

Foley’s epiphany on race came when he was assigned to Spring Hill College in 1944 to fill in for a faculty member who had volunteered to become a chaplain in the Navy. He was to teach a course entitled "Migration, Immigration and Race,” and his preparations led him to read voluminous works on the subject of race relations and his mind was changed forever. 

Foley left SHC a year later — removed after taking white female students and black war veterans on a trip together to Mississippi — but returned in 1953 for what was supposed to be a two-year post. By 1955, he was becoming involved in community activity and headed to Montgomery for the organizational meeting on the Alabama Council on Human Relations, where he was chosen as the temporary chairman of the Mobile-Baldwin section. It was in that capacity he first met King and also how he came to draw the ire of the area’s Ku Klux Klan members. 

While working with the Council on Human Relations, Foley brought a collection of proposed city ordinances aimed at curbing KKK violence and intimidation in the city — something that had been on the rise over the past couple of years — to the attention of city leaders. 

It didn’t hurt that then-Mobile Mayor Joseph Langan was Foley’s former student. Langan took the measures before the commission but got no traction. However, the end result was that Foley’s efforts became public knowledge. Within days the Klan took out ads in the Mobile Press labeling Foley a "man of large profession and small deeds, a communist and quisling of foreign seed who wants to write new city ordinances.”

This shove led the priest to push back against the Klan in an effort to expose members and eventually break up their ability to terrorize those who opposed their racist agenda.

"I think he used to pay people a pittance, five dollars or so, to sit outside Klan meetings and write down license numbers,” said Carol Ellis, director at the University of South Alabama Archives. 

In his memoir, Foley said he compared the license numbers to a list he’d purchased from the license commission for $65 in order to discover the car owners’ identities. Ellis, who wrote her master’s thesis on Foley, says his anti-Klan efforts knew few bounds. 

"I think at one point he went so far as to rent the upper apartment above the Klan leader so he could keep tabs on him,” Ellis said. 

Foley even raised money to get an undercover agent to infiltrate Klan meetings. He also personally drove with students to meetings to gather license plate numbers, and describes a car chase scene where he and some students were tailed into Prichard after gathering the license plate numbers of cars owned by the Klan’s Grand Kleagle and Exalted Cyclops.

Foley followed this up by having students in his Social Orientations class conduct surveys of about 600 in Mobile to determine people’s attitudes about the Klan. The results, overwhelmingly negative toward the Klan, were made public, drawing angry letters to the editor from Kluxers. Foley writes that his activities eventually caused Spring Hill President, Fr. Andrew C. Smith to caution him about the conflict. 

"He said it looked as though it were becoming a personal battle between the Grand Dragon and myself,” Foley wrote. 

According to an article in American magazine, the strife between Foley and the KKK came home to roost at SHC on Jan. 21, 1957, when a dozen cars drove onto the campus, their occupants intent upon burning a cross in front of Mobile Hall. Students, however, broke up the party. 

"Seeing the Klansmen, one student is said to have shouted to his roommate, ‘The goddamn rednecks are here, the Klan is here!’ Soon the whole dormitory population was pouring out the front doors, so many and so fast that they scared the Klan members off before the men could ignite their cross,” the article reported. "Later that night, four students went to the gunshop owned by the Klan’s Grand Dragon and threw a brick through the window. They returned to campus and called him at home. Gerard Rubin, a student at the time, remembers: ‘At 2:30 in the morning I called him up and I said, ‘You got a surprise in your store tomorrow, and if you guys come back to our campus anymore, you’ll have it worse.’”

The matter escalated the next night when Klansmen did manage to successfully burn a cross outside the gates of the college on Old Shell Road. This was countered the following day by Freshmen who hung an effigy of a Kluxer at the gates with a sign saying, "KKKers are Chicken,” according to the American article.

Foley’s run-ins with the Klan continued even into the early ‘70s, a time when he describes going to a gathering on a large piece of land near the University of South Alabama where Kluxers were intent upon building an all-white school. In his memoir, Foley describes being grabbed and dragged into a room where men swore at him while demanding to know who he was. At some point he says one of the men swung a hammer at his head, but his arm was caught by another Klansman. One of the Klan leaders also pointed a pistol at his head that day. 

"I was glad to get out without having my head bashed in,” Foley wrote. 

Ellis says even though Foley was actively involved in fighting against the Klan in Mobile in particular and the state at large, eventually his involvement in civil rights would come to define his career. 

Foley and King

Foley writes of first meeting King in 1955 in Montgomery during the organization of the Alabama Council on Human Relations. The two would meet many more times in the months surrounding the Montgomery Bus Boycott. Foley had been instrumental in working with black leaders in Mobile to fashion the Azalea City’s efforts to produce a new segregation policy for the city’s bus system. Mobile adopted a less rigid method of segregation on its buses, doing away with the hard line between the "colored” and "white” sections. It was the model that ended up prompting King’s boycott in the state capital.

"The Montgomery Bus Boycott was actually for more humane segregation. A black section, white section and floating section,” says the chairman of Spring Hill College’s History Department, Dr. Tom Ward. 

Ward describes the relationship between Foley and King as starting out with the white priest actually being the more well-known of the two in civil rights circles. 

"The structure is this, part of it is that there is this long relationship between Foley and King. Foley, of course, had been involved in racial issues when King was still in college. 

His activity goes back to the 1940s. So he’s ahead of the curve of everybody in many regards, so I think he meets King for the first time in ’55. So they’ve got a relationship that goes back almost a decade (at the time the tapes were recorded) and Foley, in some regards, was more well known in 1954-55 than King was in Alabama,” Ward said.

Since his first stint at SHC, Foley had been known as a race liberal, Ward says. He was someone who King could have counted on to be behind him during the early days of the Civil Rights Movement. But by the time the Birmingham Protests have come around, the two have decidedly different ideas about how to accomplish desegregation. 

"Part of the back story is that there is this good relationship between the two of them and Foley is by all accounts what they would call a race liberal. The ‘Letter From Birmingham Jail’ deals with the white moderate, people saying you’ve got to go slow. So the back story is that Foley has been on the front lines for a long time and has made his bones in pushing for racial equality,” Ward explained. "That said, when you get to the Birmingham protests, Foley is telling King to slow down and saying ‘This is not the right time.’ Of course he’s not the only one saying that. There are those in the black community saying that.”

By 1960, Foley was President of the Alabama Council on Human Relations. He had also been named chairman of the Alabama Advisory Committee to the United States Civil Rights Commission, a federally appointed position. But by that time, Ward says King and others in the black community were chaffing against the glacial pace of change in Alabama and the rest of the South. 

"We tend to look at the civil rights movement and think it takes off, but it dies essentially. There’s massive resistance in ’56, ’57, ’58, ’59. Nothing happens. There are no successes. The schools don’t get integrated. King leaves Montgomery, goes to Atlanta. Then he goes to India, then gets stabbed. He’s basically out. It’s not until 1960 until the sit-in movement that starts in North Carolina with a bunch of 18-year-old kids, and then you get the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee and they start saying boycotts are passive. We’re going to sit-in. We’re going to force people to listen to us,” Ward said. 

King joins a SNCC-led effort to boycott segregated businesses in Albany, Ga. in 1961, but it is deemed a failure when officials refuse to take the bait and create a media scene. 

Ward says the movement was looking for its next battleground and Birmingham fit the bill. With the intemperate Bull Connor there, confrontations were almost a foregone conclusion. 

In November 1962 a ballot measure that would change the city’s government and ensure Connor’s removal had been pushed through by moderates. But King was planning a boycott, and it was feared such a thing would jeopardize the efforts to change the government. Foley was called in to help convince King to wait. 

"I was asked by the white progressives to intervene with Martin Luther King and request that he postpone the demonstrations until after the November election, which might spell the beginning of the end of (the police commissioner’s) domination of the city’s politics,” Foley wrote, purposefully omitting Connor’s name. 

The voters agreed during the primary election in November to replace the three-member city commission with a nine-member council and weak mayor format. Another election was scheduled for January 1963, and Foley again was called upon to ask King to hold off on the demonstrations. He agreed. 

Connor had tossed his hat in the ring for mayor under the new format and ended up in a runoff with Albert Boutwell, an election that would be held April 1. Foley was again asked to convince King to postpone. Connor was defeated and a more moderate administration was swept in, although Connor would sue in an attempt to hang on to his position for another two years. And it was at this time King made his move. 

 "It was crazy. You had one city government meet in the morning and another meet in the afternoon. So that was part of the criticism that Foley and A.G.. Gaston and others had. 

Let this play out. And Bobby Kennedy’s saying the same thing. Of course there’s nothing in King’s writings that says this, but that may be exactly why he thought this was the right time and place. If you’re trying to create chaos — which to some extent he was, because chaos is going to shine the light on Birmingham,” Ward said.

What happens next between Foley and King remains a matter of debate. The day after the election, Foley came to Birmingham to deliver a speech to Frontiers International, a black rotary club. A newspaper story quotes Foley strongly denouncing some of King’s tactics, even accusing him of attempting to use the situation to make money.  

In his first recorded conversation with King on April 8, Foley denies making the derogatory remarks, saying he was misquoted. King admits that others at the meeting told him Foley had not made the remarks publicly, but he was still stunned by the quotes.

"But when the paper came out the next day with this strong, personal attack, frankly, I had never expected anyone who knows me — I hear it from the Klan and the White Citizens’ Council — but the things that they quoted in this particular article were such things as ‘this was just a publicity stunt to raise some money’ and so on. This was the thing that concerned all of us a great deal. Not so much the things that were said about direct action, but the statements that were very strong and personal — a personal attack on me,” King says in the tape. 

Ellis says the comments Foley was quoted as making do jibe with statements he later makes in his own memoir, lending more credence to the possibility he may have made them in some form or fashion.

"Obviously as someone with such a public profile, it seems strange to me he didn’t realize those remarks were going to be published. When you have someone hitting a civil rights group like that, talking about the premier civil rights activist in the country obviously those remarks are going to be published,” Ellis said. 

At the time of their first recorded conversation, the demonstrations had begun and a weary-sounding King is left defending his actions against Foley’s remonstrations that the direct action methods being used are only likely to help Connor in his bid to have the courts rule he can stay in office until 1965. King counters that he had postponed three times and the time for action was then, especially as the Easter shopping season approaches. 

"You can see why King was hurt by this. He really saw Foley as someone who was in his camp,” Ward says. "The other thing that’s not really said, and what King can’t say, is that part of the Birmingham protests, it’s not designed just for Birmingham. This is for a media event to bring in national attention.... King’s strategy is not to convince the white people of Birmingham that segregation is wrong. It’s not to convince the black people of Birmingham that segregation is wrong. It’s to convince white people in Minnesota that segregation is wrong and you ought to call your congressman in Washington.”

Throughout the conversation, Foley continues trying to convince King the demonstrations will lead to bloodshed and he has achieved enough power to reach his goals by talking.  

"Will you sit down and negotiate with these people instead of making Easter in Birmingham the symbol of a bloodbath for a city? Because if this pressure keeps building up I’m sure that the KKK from Bessemer and Fairfield and from the outlying areas is going to be building up and come in there in the next couple of days and make Holy Week an unholy thing,” Foley said. 

Ellis likens both men to passing ships in the way they speak, neither really hearing the other, and it is clear they have very basic differences about how to go about achieving change. Just four days after their April 8 conversation, King steps things up by getting arrested. Ward says it was necessary because the Birmingham protests were also beginning to fizzle a bit. 

"King said what will bring the energy? It will bring the energy if I get arrested and I go to jail. He goes right after this one conversation with Foley. He goes down and he gets arrested, they put him in solitary confinement,” Ward said. "That’s where he writes ‘Letter from a Birmingham Jail.’ It’s Easter weekend and of course you’ve got all the religious symbolism behind that.”

King’s powerful letter is a reasoned explanation as to why he insists on taking direct action rather than waiting for the courts and legislation to give blacks equal rights.

"For years now I have heard the word ‘Wait!’ It rings in the ear of every Negro with piercing familiarity. This ‘Wait’ has almost always meant ‘Never.’ We must come to see, with one of our distinguished jurists, that ‘justice too long delayed is justice denied,’” King wrote. 

Ward said the original letter was simply written in the margins of the very newspaper in which "A Call for Unity” appeared. 

Almost a month later Foley and King again speak by phone, this time on May 4. The conversation is much more pointed, with both men expressing disappointment in one another. Foley admonishes him again and again about putting his people in harm’s way and the violence that has come as a result of the demonstrations, while King reiterates the importance of direct action in moving desegregation forward. 

In the end, they appear to have lost respect for one another, even if they both agree about the goals.

"I know what you have done across the years and I hate to see you now come to the point where you don’t understand. The new dimension and the mood of the Negro is discontent and frustration. It is the horrible agonizing experience over the slow pace of things,” King says. 

Ward says this point shows precisely the differences in the two men’s approach.

"This is where King’s exactly right in the conversation with Foley. King says something to the effect of ‘We can sit down and talk but nothing ever happens until there’s crisis.

 The federal government doesn’t care until it’s a crisis.’ And he’s exactly right. This has been going on for weeks,” Ward said. "Foley, I think, is trying to avoid violence. King is trying to say, until we provoke a crisis, no one is really going to care.”

Ultimately, Ward says, King’s strategy works, as the world is shocked by the visions of fire canons and German Shepherds being turned loose on marchers, eventually pushing the Kennedy Administration towards initiating the Civil Rights Act and the eventual desegregation of the South. 

Foley doesn’t see it that way, writing that Kennedy’s death had more to do with passage of the Civil Rights Act than did the protests. He also believed his rift with King led to him being asked to resign as chairman of the Alabama Advisory Committee to the United States Civil Rights Commission once President Johnson took office, although he did remain a member. 

The tapes

So what is the significance of these recordings between two of the linchpins of the Civil Rights movement in Alabama? Ward says they are mostly significant to Spring Hill and Foley’s legacy, but don’t really shed much more light on King. 

"I think they’re significant on a couple of levels. On our micro-level at Spring Hill and Mobile, it shows you had someone like Foley who was involved in this movement for a long period of time, before King, and gets involved with King and is, if not an adviser, is a sounding board at this very crucial moment. Even though they disagree,” Ward said. "I think the fact that Fr. Foley at this crucial moment in Alabama history, in national history has got King’s ear, even if they’re disagreeing. I think another part that’s significant is that there was a lot of disagreement in the Civil Rights Movement.”

Ward says after having listened to the tapes, King’s mention of Spring Hill in the "Letter from Birmingham Jail” has more nuance. 

"By mentioning Spring Hill you don’t know if there’s a coded message to Foley that ‘Yeah, I know you’re not really one of these eight guys who signed it. You really are on my team, you’re not this drag-your-foot guy.’ Or it’s like ‘Look, 10 years ago you were able to lay it on the line. Lay it on the line with me now,’” Ward said.

Spring Hill plans a series of events in 2013 to commemorate the Letter as well as the tapes. SHC President Richard Salmi, S.J. says the commemoration of King’s letter and the college’s part in it will help pay tribute to Foley’s role in Alabama’s civil rights history.

"The Jesuits at Spring Hill College and Fr. Foley in particular had a significant impact on the civil rights movement in Mobile. The Jesuits’ decision to integrate the College in 1954 was years in the making. It started with Father Donnelly, who in a graduation address in 1948 proclaimed boldly, ‘Civil rights? Spring Hill College is for them.’ Fr. Foley had been re-hired by the College after being dismissed from the archdiocese years earlier for his work on integration.  His work along with the determination of the president of the college, Fr. Smith, brought integration to Spring Hill,” Salmi said.

"I believe that it is important for our campus community and especially our students to know our history so that we can continue to work for equality and for the civil rights of those who are discriminated against today. Social justice is an important dimension of Jesuit spirituality one that Dr. King recognized and one that I trust the College will always be committed to,” he added.

Ellis, who discovered the tapes while working on Foley’s papers as a student, believes they do offer not only a great behind-the-scenes look at MLK’s mind set at a very important time in U.S. history, but also bring into the light Foley’s importance in the movement. She says Foley deserves to be immortalized alongside Mobile’s greatest civil rights leaders in Friendship Park downtown.

"I try to stand up for him when people in the community start talking about John LeFlore and Joseph Langan. They always leave Fr. Foley out, and I think he belongs up on that statue too.”

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What should be Mayor-elect Stimpson's top priority?

Examining the budget.
Evaluating city employees.
Addressing public safety issues.
Improving infrastructure.
Free fish plates.

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