In his famous "Letter from Birmingham City Jail," Martin Luther King Jr. described it as the "most segregated city in America." Civil rights leaders also called the town "Bombingham" after the frequency with which African Americans were targeted by local white supremacists, who often bombed churches and even the homes of civil rights activists. These descriptions convey the rigidity of Jim Crow laws in Birmingham and the violence with which they were often enforced.
Birmingham was, in effect, controlled by "Bull" Connor, a committed and brutal white supremacist who served as Birmingham's public safety commissioner. In this role, he used the police to brutally intimidate people who violated the city's strict color line. Connor's violence was what made Birmingham truly unique, as did the fact that it was an otherwise modern city. In short, African Americans in Birmingham were as overtly oppressed in Birmingham as anywhere else in the South. There was, however, a rich and vibrant African American community in the city, and it had a community of civil rights activists rooted in the churches and led by the Reverend Fred Shuttlesworth. The violence with which Jim Crow was enforced and maintained was precisely why national civil rights leaders chose it for a showdown. King and others sought to juxtapose, in the national media, the violence of Bull Connor with the dignity and forbearance of protesters, who would descend on the city to take direct action against segregation.