“Bull” Connor and Iran’s Ayatollah

This post was written by Dr. Art Pitz on July 20, 2009
Posted Under: Civil Rights, Heroes and Villains, Middle East

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While the huge protests in Iran were in full swing, I was in Birmingham, Alabama visiting the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute.  I was struck by the idea that police chief Theophilus Eugene “Bull” Connor’s response to the civil rights protests in Birmingham bore some similarity with how the Islamic regime was dealing with the protests in Iran.  What’s the connection?  Let’s take a look at Birmingham, first.

Rev. Martin L. King Jr. carefully selected Birmingham, Alabama as a target for a campaign of nonviolent protest.  Why?  He understood that one of the best ways to destroy segregation was to expose just how awful and hateful it was.  He and his advisors calculated that the public pressure resulting from a violent response to peaceful protests would lead to an end to legal segregation in the United States.  To add to this strategy, children would be encouraged in large numbers to be part of the protests.

This was to be controversial to both sides of the ensuing confrontation.  However, King anticipated that the massive arrests of so many children would overload the criminal justice system of Birmingham.  He also figured that Sheriff “Bull” Connor was the ideal foil for this campaign.  He was right.  The Institute has a source indicating that JFK indeed thought that Connor probably did more for civil rights than any president since Lincoln.

Sheriff Connor had a well deserved reputation for violent repression of anyone who attempted to ameliorate segregation.  He was a member of the Ku Klux Klan and proud of it.  Beyond that, Birmingham, sadly, had earned the title “Bombingham” for the kind of tactics that the Klan was prone to use to try to stop those interested in civil rights for blacks.

So, Project “C” (for confrontation) was launched in 1963.  And, it worked.  Connor used almost every kind of force available to him to try to stem the protests.  What especially caught the public eye (and I remember watching it myself on the evening news) was his use of police dogs and water cannon (which could rip the bark off of trees).  King and large numbers of others were arrested leading to one of the great pieces of literature in American history—King’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail.

These horrendous tactics, reminiscent of Nazi Germany, horrified the country.  They led President JFK to introduce into Congress what became the Civil Rights Act of 1964 which would effectively put an end to legal segregation in the United States. 

Connor played his role to the hilt, as expected and beyond, and this helped lead to one of the most meaningful pieces of legislation in American History.  The tactics helped convince Republican Senator Everett McKinley Dirksen of Illinois that it was time for this change and he helped smooth the way for this legislation to pass. 

So, what’s the connection to Iran?  By what available sources we have, the Iranian regime used large degrees of force and widespread arrests to put down the protests rather as Connor did in Birmingham.  Will those actions lead public opinion around the world to make Iran a pariah amongst nations and thus help lead to the moderation, or even overthrow of the regime?

It is true that the regime’s actions undermine Ayatollah Khamenei’s claim to above-the-fray certitude.  But, the use of force seems to have succeeded at least in the short term.  The regime was able to prevent foreign journalists from reporting what they were doing, which Connor was unable to do.  The evening news in 1963 showed vivid pictures of the use of water cannon and police dogs.  We weren’t able to get that to nearly the same degree with Iran.  Further, Connor’s actions happened in such a way that the Kennedy administration and Congress were motivated to take action.  In Iran, the regime runs things and will see to it that it stays in power.

So, while the methods bear similarities, the results probably won’t—though one wishes fervently that this rather evil regime would be shaken to the point of its collapse.  The one hope is that the battle taking place between various factions in the Iranian regime will bear some positive fruit.

That’s my take on this issue, but what do you think?

Dr. Art Pitz
The Professor’s House
Know the History–Understand the Choices

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