Last Updated on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 500
The main characters (all real people) whom Martin Luther King Jr. refers to are the following:
- Dr. King himself—King is the author of the book and the leader of the nonviolent movement to attain civil rights for African American people. In this book, he explains why 1963 is a watershed year for the movement and explains his nonviolent methods of achieving desegregation.
- Eugene "Bull" Connor—King refers to the Commissioner of Public Safety in the city of Birmingham, Alabama, as "Bull Connor." King discusses the reign of terror that Connor has unleashed in Birmingham, in which "the silent password [is] fear" (36). King describes Connor's violent, fear-inducing tactics to explain why the Civil Rights movement focused on desegregating Birmingham in 1963.
- George Wallace—Wallace is the segregationist governor of Alabama whose 1963 inaugural address featured the words, "Segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever" (36). King quotes Wallace to explain why the Civil Rights movement focused on desegregating Birmingham, which King refers to as "the most segregated city in America" (36).
- Reverend Fred Shuttlesworth—Shuttlesworth organized the Alabama Christian Movement for Civil Rights in the spring of 1956 to challenge the reign of Bull Connor in Birmingham. He teams up with King to defeat Bull Connor in Birmingham.
- Ralph Albernathy is a colleague of Dr. King in the nonviolent campaign to end segregation.
- King refers to many figures in American history, including Abraham Lincoln and Thomas Jefferson, and writes the following about Birmingham: “You might have concluded that here was a city which had been trapped for decades in a Rip Van Winkle slumber; a city whose fathers had apparently never heard of Abraham Lincoln, Thomas Jefferson, the Bill of Rights, the Preamble to the Constitution, the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments, or the 1954 decision of the United states Supreme Court outlawing segregation in the public schools” (44).
- Albert Boutwell is elected mayor of Birmingham over Bull Connor. Although King writes that Boutwell is gentler than Connor, King says that Boutwell is still a segregationist. (68). Fred Shuttleworth refers to Boutwell as “just a dignified Bull Connor” (61).
- Burke Marshall is the chief civil rights assistant of Attorney General Bobby Kennedy. Kennedy sends him, along with Joseph F. Dolan, the assistant deputy attorney general, to Birmingham to try to broker a peace among the competing factions.
- John Kennedy was the presidential candidate that Martin Luther King placed his trust in during the election of 1960. Kennedy, before his death in late 1963, lived up to his promises to support civil rights as President according to King.
- Rosa Parks—King refers to the 1955–1956 Montgomery Bus Boycott, which was started when African American seamstress Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on a segregated city bus.
- King also talks about Mahatma Gandhi and his nonviolent campaign to win independence for India from Great Britain—a campaign that inspired King.
- To some degree, the people of Birmingham are characters in this book. King writes, "The ultimate tragedy of Birmingham was not the brutality of the bad people, but the silence of the good people” (48).