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T. Eugene "Bull" Connor

William A. Nunnelley, Samford University

Correlates to Alabama Course of Study: Social Studies 11th Grade Content Standard 12, p. 70

Theophilus Eugene "Bull" Connor was born in Selma, Alabama, on July 11, 1897. His father was a railroad telegrapher, and after Connor's mother died when he was eight, Eugene traveled around the country with his father, who had jobs in more than 30 states. Connor's schooling was neglected and he never graduated from high school, but he learned the craft of telegraphy from his father. Connor used his ability to read telegraph ticker reports to work for early radio stations, and later became a sportscaster in Birmingham. Making a name for himself, he moved into politics, being elected to the Alabama legislature in 1934 and to the position of Commissioner of Public Safety in Birmingham in 1937. He served four consecutive terms, skipped one term, then was re-elected in 1957 and 1961. Over the years, Connor became known as an outspoken segregationist. Birmingham voters—the majority of them white during this era of segregation—supported him for many years. But by 1962, a majority had grown tired of his reactionary politics and voted to change Birmingham's form of government from City Commission to Mayor-Council primarily to oust Connor and his two fellow commissioners—Mayor Art Hanes and Commissioner of Public Improvements J. T. Waggoner. The commissioners sued to keep their jobs, but on May 23, 1963, the Alabama Supreme Court ruled that the newly elected Birmingham City Council was the city's legal government. Connor thus left office after more than 26 years on the City Commission. In 1964, he won the first of two terms as President of the Alabama Public Service Commission. He retired after losing the race for a third term in 1972, and died March 10, 1973.

One of the most enduring images of the Civil Rights Movement is that of Birmingham firemen and policemen using water hoses and police dogs against African-American demonstrators in 1963 Birmingham. The episode came during the first week of May, following a month of peaceful demonstrations by Birmingham's African-American community against their city's segregation ordinances. Civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr., who described Birmingham as "the most segregated city in America," organized the demonstrations with the help of local civil rights leader Fred L. Shuttlesworth and others. "Bull" Connor tried to stop the growing demonstrations, and gained lasting infamy when he resorted to using the water hoses and dogs. Televised reports of police dogs lunging at African-American citizens and people being washed down the streets by water from powerful fire hoses dramatized the plight of African-Americans in segregated areas. The events in Birmingham helped mobilize the administration of President John Kennedy to begin efforts leading to the most far-reaching civil rights legislation in history, the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The name "Bull" Connor thus came to symbolize hard-line Southern racism. Ironically, Connor's heavy-handed defense of segregation in 1963 Birmingham actually hastened the passage of America's Civil Rights Act.

Selected Bibliography

bullet gif Nunnelly, William A. Bull Connor. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1991.