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An infamous character in Alabama’s history becomes a reflection of today’s politics.
By Tom Gordon; Photography by Beau Gustafson

Earlier this summer, I was sitting at the bar in Pietro’s, a family run Italian restaurant in south St. Louis, eating forkfuls of pasta and washing them down with a rich red wine. It was late, the only folks on hand were myself and the veteran bartender whose name was Linda, and our conversation was easy, unhurried, and, all in all, candid.

For all I know, I may be the only Pietro’s patron to have hailed from Birmingham, Alabama, but I certainly was the only one there that night. Linda told me her only experience with the Magic City had been passing through it on the way to the Gulf beaches, but I figured she associated Birmingham with certain things, and so I asked her what they were.

She paused, then said slowly, “The blacks. The riots.”

Linda said more, but she basically was talking about the civil rights upheavals that brought the city national and worldwide attention in 1963, and the city got that attention in large part because of the repressive tactics and unabashedly racist personality of the city’s public safety commissioner, Theophilus Eugene “Bull” Connor.

Google “Bull Connor,” and you’ll get 14.6 million results (and the number grows by thousands daily). That number dwarfs what you would get if you combined the results of searches for such well-known Birmingham figures as the civil rights activist Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth; the city’s first black mayor, Richard Arrington; the award-winning restaurateur Frank Stitt, black entrepreneur A.G. Gaston, and Grammy Award winning singer Emmylou Harris, just to name a few.

unnamed-2Now Connor can’t touch the results that come for Bear Bryant, whose teams played many a game at Legion Field, or even the world-renowned avant-garde composer (and Parker High graduate) Sun Ra. But just like Donald Trump has become the name people around the world often think about these days when they think of America, Bull Connor and his ordered use of firehoses and police dogs against civil rights marchers are still what come to the minds of many when they think of Birmingham or of the civil rights era in general.

And local historian Jim Baggett says the issues that animated now-President Trump’s voters in 2016 are echoes of the issues that animated Connor’s supporters, and, indeed, Connor himself.

Before my trip to St. Louis, Baggett and I had discussed Connor, his place in history, his influence today, and the similarities between Connor and Trump. Those subjects and others will be part of a full-length biography that Baggett is now writing on Birmingham’s most notorious public figure.

“The thing is, Connor is all in our culture today,” says Baggett, who heads the archives department at the Birmingham Public Library. “I mean, you will find writers right now comparing Connor to Trump or Trump to Connor…Connor has become this fungible, all-purpose villain. This phenomenon started before the internet, but the internet has really made it explode.

“… Anyone you dislike, anyone you disgree with politically, what’s the worst thing you can think of? Well, if it’s not Hitler, then it’s Bull Connor. You know, I have files and files and files…where people are comparing George W. Bush to Bull Connor, and Dick Cheney to Bull Connor, Jesse Jackson to Bull Connor, Al Sharpton to Bull Connor. Gay and lesbian writers compare their opponents to Bull Connor. (Former Arkansas Gov.) Mike Huckabee is compared to Bull Connor. I have Mike Huckabee invoking Connor to argue against gay marriage. And I have (former “Star Trek” cast member) George Takei  invoking Bull Connor to argue in favor of gay marriage. Environmentalists use Connor. He’s just become this villain, and oftentimes, I think people do it because they know what the name means.

“They don’t always exactly know who he is, and it’s not unusual that someone will write something and put Connor at Selma or put Connor in the wrong place. They don’t necessarily know the details of who he was or what he did. But they know what the name means. The name means intolerance. The name means violent intolerance, and violent oppression, and so, it’s just become a catchphrase.”

A product of rural St. Clair County, the 54-year-old Baggett has been working on the Connor biography for more than 10 years, and he has been researching him for longer than that. And when he started this massive project, Donald Trump was not someone with whom he would have compared Connor. Now, the comparisons are so obvious that Baggett cannot ignore them, and they will be part of the book. The book’s working title, based on a challenge Connor once made to U.S. Sen. John Sparkman to stand strong on the race issue, is “A Good Time to Fight.”

unnamed-1“Connor’s whole career, especially his political career, is just a series of conflicts and fights, one after another,” Baggett said. “Some of them, he instigates. Others, he just jumps in, but that’s really how he functions… He creates controversy or he co-ops controversy, and then presents himself as the solution. ‘Here’s a problem, here’s a danger, here’s something that’s threatening you. Here I am. I know how to protect you. I know how to fix this.’ Does this sound familiar?”

During his work on the now half-finished book, Baggett has interviewed dozens of people, including one Connor relative. And even though Connor had a career as an entertaining sportscaster and flamboyant politician that spanned several decades—most of it in Birmingham city government—many of those whom Baggett has interviewed have told him they did not vote for Connor, or that their parents never did. Baggett also has given public talks about Connor, and he draws squirms and frowns and an occasional walkout when he goes beyond the well-known negative image of the man to talk about him “as a person,” a father and a grandfather.

“You know, none of that changes any of the horrible things that he was responsible for,” Baggett says. “But it simply helps us understand him more fully. But when I do that, when I start bringing him close, that makes some people very uncomfortable, especially whites… It’s easy to talk about a figure like Connor as villain. It’s much harder to talk about him as a person, it’s much more uncomfortable to talk about him as a person.

“One thing that I think is going to surprise some readers, especially readers who are not from the South, is that, for instance, Connor loved kids. He liked being around kids. He had a childlike, playful nature himself sometimes. He could be generous. He could be gracious when he wanted to and…it doesn’t surprise me because I grew up around men in my own family who were staunch segregationists and white supremacists but also could be loving, generous, kind people. You can have both of those things in one person, and you have that in Connor, and I think that bothers some people, too.

“Again, when you start talking in these terms, you always have to circle back to, ‘That doesn’t change any of the awful things he did or was responsible for.’  But it reminds us that not only was he a complex human being but we’re all complex human beings. And none of us are all good or all bad as a spectrum.”

 unnamed-3Baggett says it’s too easy, particularly if you limit the context to Birmingham, to see Connor as an buffoonish, bigoted, “oddball outlier.” His years of research and observation tell him that Ole Bull is anything but an outlier, and it’s not just because people are quick to compare him to controversial figures of today.

“The more time I spend looking at him, the more relevant he becomes,” Baggett says. “I mean, Connor is not just an important historical figure; he’s relevant to our politics today because the issues that he is so identified with, we thought they were going away, but they’re not.

You look at Connor’s time, and you look at many whites who really thought their way of life was being threatened, their whole world was being turned upside down by integration, by communism, by liberals. These were the things that they were afraid of, and these were the things that Connor used and Connor believed those things, too.” Throw in a few other things such as immigration, the gay rights movement, massive job losses in once-stable factory towns, the fear of terrorism by Muslim extremists and you have a lot of the issues that led to Donald Trump’s inauguration last January.

“Connor used white fear,” Baggett says. “Trump uses white fear.”

Long before there was Trump, whose business career was only starting when Connor died in 1973, there was George Wallace. One can’t overlook the fact that Connor’s rise to prominence on a regional and national scale paralleled that of Wallace, who won the governor’s chair in 1962 as a staunch segregationist. Back then, Alabama’s June 3 primary for the 1962 Democratic gubernatorial nomination was considered the state’s real general election, and it drew eight candidates. One of them happened to be Connor. He did not make the two-man runoff, but endorsed the fiery Wallace.

Comparing Wallace and Connor is a bit muddy, Baggett says, because Wallace ultimately moved away from his hard-line views, even saying his stand for segregation was wrong. “There’s no public indication that Connor ever changed his views on  race,” Baggett says. “And I think like a lot of men of that era, (he) never accepted integration. I mean, they had to learn to live with it, but they never accepted it. They certainly never embraced it.”

unnamed-4The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., who sparred with Connor and Wallace, said that Wallace’s revanchist rhetoric set the tone that enabled such violent acts as the bombing that killed four girls at Birmingham’s Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Sept. 15, 1963. Baggett says Connor was an enabler as well, and that is where he sees one of the more disturbing comparisons with Donald Trump.

“Like Connor, Trump has given white racists license to say things that, you know, they didn’t feel comfortable saying out loud,” Baggett says. “You know, it’s funny. I think one of the things that makes me qualified to write abou Connor is because I grew up in his world…and I find that sometimes when I deal with historians and students from other places, Connor makes no sense to them because they don’t have that context, and so he’s just this alien thing… And I’ve noticed with the media (that) Trump and Trump’s followers don’t make sense to a lot of people in the media and they’ll ask, ‘Well, he says all these inappropriate things. Why doesn’t that turn off his supporters?’ Because they say those things. They’ve been saying those things among themselves all along, and now you’ve got this guy out there, poking the liberal establishment and the media in the eye and saying these things, and they love it because it’s freeing for them. And now they can say this stuff.”

If you take the long view of southern history, you can fit Connor into a long line of politicians, many flamboyant, for whom racist remarks were a stock-in-trade and violent acts like lynching were necessary to maintain the racial order. But Connor’s celebrity, first as a sportscaster and then as a politician who was spotlighted in the television age, gave him a higher perch than many who had preceded him, a perch from which he could let Birmingham whites know “that you could insult an African-American, you could physically assault an African-American and probably know nothing would be done about it,” Baggett says. “And when you give people license to mistreat others, some people will take that and go with it…”

Where the country is going now was an unsettling question for Baggett. Though our conversation took place weeks before an anti-Trump social media user opened fire on a House Republican baseball practice and seriously wounded House Minority Whip Steve Scalise, Baggett said he feared the possibility of incidents here that we Americans have traditionally associated with unstable parts of the world, things like gunfights in the streets between those of opposing views.

“I think it’s a dangerous time,” he said. “And honestly, Trump doesn’t worry me as much as what he’s unleashing.”

With his worries have come a reminder that the animosities, divisions and extremism associated with Connor’s generation have more staying power than he would have thought, say, a year or two ago.

“You could look on C-Span and see me saying this generation is dying off, and we’re going to have this new world,” Baggett says. “I look at my daughter and her friends, and race means nothing to them. Gender means nothing to them. It makes no sense to them. Why anybody would even care? (But) one thing that Trump has done for me is (he has) reminded me that I live in a bubble. I live in Alabama, but I live in a liberal neighborhood in a Democratic city, I work with professional people who mostly think  the way I do…”

And outside the bubble, attitudes and concerns can be much different.

“Ultimately, I think that’s why it’s important to look at someone like Trump in the context of someone like Connor,” Baggett says. “There are consequences, whether you’re talking about the damage Trump is doing to the presidency…and the damage he is doing to just the United States as a community of people who need to be able to live together and get along.”

Five decades ago, Connor did the same thing in a Birmingham context, Baggett says, “and Birmingham is still dealing with it.” 

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