As Safety Commissioner, Bull Connor became a symbol of the segregated south after journalists captured the violent aftermath of his instruction to the Birmingham Fire Department to put their water hoses on demonstrators and ordered the Birmingham Police Department to attack demonstrators with police dogs….
One of the most iconic and disturbing moments of the Civil Rights Movement was when the Commissioner of Public Safety, Bull Connor, ordered the Birmingham, Alabama Fire Department to use fire hoses on men, women, and children demonstrators. “Connor ordered the city’s fire hoses, set at a level that would peel bark off a tree or separate bricks from mortar, to be turned on the children. Boys’ shirts were ripped off, and young women were pushed over the tops of cars by the force of the water. When the students crouched or fell, the blasts of water rolled them down the asphalt streets and concrete sidewalks.” (McWhorter, p. 370–371)
Connor ordered police to use German shepherd dogs to keep protesters in line. Images of fire hoses and police dogs brutalizing students made front page news around the world. That evening Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. told worried parents in a crowd of a thousand, “Don’t worry about your children who are in jail. The eyes of the world are on Birmingham. We’re going on in spite of dogs and fire hoses. We’ve gone too far to turn back.”
President Kennedy would later say, “The Civil Rights movement should thank God for Bull Connor. He’s helped it as much as Abraham Lincoln.” Civil rights legend Wyatt Tee Walker wrote that the Birmingham campaign was “legend” and had become the Civil Rights Movement’s most important chapter.