Eugene "Bull" Connor

Eugene "Bull" Connor
Birmingham Commissioner of Public Safety
In office
Preceded by W. O. Downs
Succeeded by Robert Lindbergh
Birmingham Commissioner of Public Safety
In office
Preceded by Robert Lindbergh
Succeeded by none (office eliminated)
President, Alabama Public Service Commission
In office
Preceded by Jack Owen
Succeeded by Kenneth Hammond
Personal details
Political party Democratic Party, States' Rights Democratic Party

Theophilus Eugene "Bull" Connor (July 11, 1897 – March 10, 1973) was the Commissioner of Public Safety for the city of Birmingham, Alabama, during the American Civil Rights Movement. His office gave him responsibility for administrative oversight of the Birmingham Fire Department and the Birmingham Police Department, which had their own chiefs.

Through his covert actions to enforce racial segregation and deny civil rights to Black citizens, especially during the Southern Christian Leadership Conference's Birmingham Campaign of 1963, Connor became an international symbol of racism. Connor infamously directed the use of fire hoses and police attack dogs against peaceful demonstrators, including children.[1][2] 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 southern United States and helped in large measure to assure the passage by the United States Congress of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.[3]

Early Years

Connor began his career as a telegraph operator. As a sideline, he conveyed reports on the exploits of the Birmingham Barons and other teams from the telegraph office to local pool halls, using a megaphone. His creative patter between updates, his use of a "bull horn", and his similarity to a cartoon drawing of columnist B. U. L. Conner in the Birmingham Post, combined to give him the nickname he used for the rest of his life.[3]

Eugene Connor was a member of the Alabama Ku Klux Klan in the 1920s. Connor entered politics as a Democrat in 1934, winning a seat in the Alabama House of Representatives.[4] As a legislator he supported populist measures and pro-union issues. He voted for extending the poll tax and against an anti-sedition bill meant to stifle union activity. He did not stand for a second term in 1936, instead running for Commissioner of Public Safety for the City of Birmingham. In 1936, Connor was elected to the office of Commissioner of Public Safety, 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 1938, Connor became a 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."

In 1948, Connor's officers arrested U.S. Senator from Idaho, 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 1948 Democratic National Convention, Connor led the Alabama delegation in a walkout when the national party included a civil rights plank in its platform.[3] The offshoot States' Rights Democratic Party (Dixiecrats) nominated Strom Thurmond for president at its convention in Birmingham's Municipal Auditorium[5]

A second run for Governor fell flat in 1954, 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's wife reportedly witnessed an incident of police brutality by Henry Darnell. Connor investigated and charged Darnell with conduct unbecoming of an officer. The issues between the two men truly exploded on December 26, when Connor was arrested, five days after having been found in a hotel room with his 34-year-old secretary, Christina Brown, following a Christmas party. 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

Before 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 Montgomery 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 Committeeman for Alabama, 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 Court ruled against Connor's position, ending his 23-year tenure in the post. Birmingham 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.

Freedom Riders and Project C

On May 2, 1961, Connor won a landslide election for his sixth term as Commissioner of Public Safety in Birmingham, Alabama. As Commissioner, Connor had administrative authority over the police and fire departments, schools, public health service and libraries.[6] Tom King, a candidate running for mayor of Birmingham met up with Connor on May 8, 1961, to pay respects for winning the election. King also called for the meeting because in the past Connor had shown support for the other leading mayoral candidate, Art Hanes. In a way King was trying to get Connor to not publicize his support for Hanes because it would be detrimental for King in the race. Connor and King met briefly and at the end of the meeting Connor brought up how he was expecting the Freedom Riders on the following Sunday, Mother’s Day. Connor stated, “We’ll be ready for them, too” and King responding, “I bet you will, Commissioner” as he walked out.[7]

By that Sunday on Mother’s Day the Freedom Riders arrived in Birmingham. This was after a rough experience in Anniston, Alabama where one of their buses had been firebombed and burned in an act of violence by members of the Ku Klux Klan. A new Greyhound bus left for Birmingham. KKK members boarded the bus then beat the Riders, leaving them semi-conscious in the back. As they reached the terminal in Birmingham, a large mob of white Klansmen and news reporters were waiting for them. The Riders and some reporters were beaten viciously with metal bars, pipes and bats until, after fifteen minutes, the police finally arrived.[8] No arrests were made at the scene, even though the police department and Connor knew the Riders were going to be there on that Sunday. Connor explicitly knew when the Riders were set to arrive because of the exchange with King a week before. He purposely let the Klansmen beat the Riders for fifteen minutes with no police interference. Connor blamed this incident on many factors like, “No policemen were in sight as the buses arrived, because they were visiting their mothers on Mother’s Day”.[9] Connor also insisted that the violence came from out-of-town meddlers and that police had rushed to the scene as quickly as possible. He then issued this warning, “As I have said on numerous occasions, we are not going to stand for this in Birmingham. And if necessary we will fill the jail full and we don't care whose toes we step on. I am saying now to these meddlers from out of our city the best thing for them to do is stay out if they don't want to get slapped in jail. Our people of Birmingham are a peaceful people and we never have any trouble here unless some people come into our city looking for trouble. And I've never seen anyone yet look for trouble who wasn't able to find it”.[10]

In 1962, Connor ordered the closing of sixty Birmingham parks rather than follow a court order to desegregate public facilities. After the failed attempt at the Albany movement, Martin Luther King and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference decided to put their efforts on the most thoroughly segregated city in the United States, Birmingham. It was called Project C (for "Confrontation"). The SCLC wanted to target the business section of Birmingham through economic boycott and demonstrations. Throughout April 1963 Martin Luther King led smaller demonstrations, which resulted in his arrest along with many others.[11]

The final phase of Project C introduced a revolutionary and controversial new tactic that used young people in the demonstrations. On May 2, 1963, the first children came out and marched through the streets of Birmingham. By the end of the day 959 children ranging from ages 6–18 had been arrested. By May 3, massive amounts of demonstrators were participating and Connor ordered the use of fire hoses and attack dogs. This didn’t stop the demonstrators, but generated bad publicity for Connor through the news media. The use of fire hoses continued for several days, and by May 7, Connor and the police department had jailed over three thousand demonstrators.[11] Due to problematic race relations and crippling economic status the SCLC and the Senior Citizens Committee, who represented a majority of Birmingham businesses, came to an agreement. On May 10, they agreed on the desegregation of lunch counters, restrooms, fitting rooms and drinking fountains, the upgrading and hiring of blacks, cooperation with SCLC legal representatives in releasing all jailed persons and the establishment of communication between black and whites through the Senior Citizens Committee.[12]

Because of the attack on the Freedom Riders, Project C, and Birmingham’s worsening reputation, voters had become dissatisfied with Connor. In November 1962, when the voters of Birmingham decided to switch to a Mayor-Council form of government, Connor sued to have the election thrown out. On May 11, 1963, Connor was ordered to vacate his office following the Alabama Supreme Court decision in favor of a Mayor-Council government, ending his 22-year run as the Commissioner of Public Safety.[6]

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, and he used a wheelchair for the rest of his life. He was part of history on February 16, 1968, when he was present at the Haleyville, Alabama, police station for the first ever use of 9-1-1 as an emergency telephone number in the United States. Months later, Connor won another term, but was defeated in 1972, putting an end to his political career.

Another stroke he suffered on February 26, 1973, weeks before his death, left him unconscious, and he died in March of that year.[13] Survivors included his widow, Beara, a daughter, a son, and a brother, King Edward Connor.


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


  • Nunnelley, William A. (1991) Bull Connor. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press. ISBN 0-8173-0495-9
  • 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).

External links

  • Photographs of Connor at the Birmingham Public Library

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