One of the most infamous of segregationists in the Deep South during the decade of the 1960’s, Theophilus Eugene Connor began his political career as a Democrat but was instrumental in creating serious rifts within that party over the issue of race relations. He is best remembered as the Public Safety Commissioner for the city of Birmingham, Alabama. His tenure in office is remembered as a period marked by the use of police dogs and open fire hoses on Freedom Fighters, African American citizens who gathered in public assembly, and anyone that Connor viewed as promoting the end of segregation in the city.
Born on 11 July 1897, Bull Connor entered the political arena during the 1920’s. By 1936, Connor was elected police commissioner for the city of Birmingham, a position that he held until 1952. After a four year break, he returned to the office in 1956. Over the same period of time, Bull Connor became prominent in the Alabama State Democratic Party, a connection that led him to conflict with the national party on a number of social issues, including racial segregation.
Bull Connor often employed the approach of describing those who were not in agreement with his political and social stances as Communists. For example, Connor cited Communist tendencies within the Southern Negro Youth Congress as his reasons for raiding a 1948 meeting of the group and arresting Glen Taylor, Idaho senator and guest speaker for the event, on charges of violating the city’s segregation laws. Connor expressed similar sentiments when he led the Alabama caucus out of the 1948 Democratic National Convention, largely due to the civil rights reforms that were on the agenda for discussion at the Convention.
Due to a controversy surrounding the involvement of Bull Connor in a personal relationship with his private secretary, Connor chose to not run for reelection to his post in 1952. However, he returned in 1956 and established his administration once again, with little to no variance in his approach. Connor appeared to be particularly mindful of preventing a similar event in Birmingham of the recent successful bus boycott that occurred in Montgomery, Alabama. His tactics went as far as raiding a meeting between ministers of churches in Birmingham and Montgomery and arresting them on a charge of vagrancy.
Bull Connor continued to be a prominent civic official in Birmingham during the 1960’s. Known to be a member of the Ku Klux Klan and an ardent opponent of the American Civil Rights Movement, Connor seemed to often turn a blind eye to the actions of law enforcement officers and others against civil rights activists and supporters. His actions went a long way in establishing a national reputation for Birmingham as the most racially divided city in the country. Connor instigated the 1963 arrest of Dr. Martin Luther King and unwittingly allowed King the time to write his famous Letter From Birmingham Jail, considered one of the most important documents in the history of the non-violent struggle for racial equality.
A change in the structure of the city government of Birmingham in 1962 led to the abolition of the commission position held by Bull Connor. Attempts to run for mayor of the city were subsequently unsuccessful. However, Bull Connor became the director of the Alabama Public Service Commission in 1964, a post he held until 1972. A stroke in late 1966 confined him to a wheelchair, but he continued to oversee his responsibilities. One major event as his tenure as Public Service Commissioner was the implementation of the use of 911 as a nationwide telephone number for emergency assistance, with the first use taking place in Haleyville, Alabama on 16 February 1968.
After suffering a second stroke in February 1973, Bull Connor began a decline that ended with his death on 10 March 1973. His legacy includes some of the most severe abuses of civil authority in the history of the United States, and continues to serve as a reminder of one of the most violent and shameful periods in American history.