In “You Have to Be Prepared to Die Before You Can Begin to Live,” Paul Kix brings cinematic flair to the story of the civil rights leader’s risky 1963 campaign to integrate the city.

This black-and-white photo shows a police dog lunging at the torso of a Black teenager. A white police officer grips the dog’s leash with one hand and grabs the teenager’s sweater with the other. In the street around them, other figures, including a second white police officer with a dog, observe the incident.
Walter Gadsden, a 15-year-old high school student, is attacked by a police dog during a civil rights demonstration in Birmingham, Ala., on May 3, 1963. Credit...Bill Hudson/Associated Press

When you purchase an independently reviewed book through our site, we earn an affiliate commission.

YOU HAVE TO BE PREPARED TO DIE BEFORE YOU CAN BEGIN TO LIVE: Ten Weeks in Birmingham That Changed America, by Paul Kix

In the spring of 1963, the civil rights movement, weakened and in need of a victory, decided to march straight into what was then the monstrous maw of American racism, Birmingham, Ala.

Little had changed for Black people in the nearly 10 years since Brown v. Board of Education, the Supreme Court ruling overturning the “separate but equal” doctrine in public education. After the 1955-56 Montgomery bus boycott, Black Americans once again found themselves relegated to the back of the bus. The Freedom Rides of 1961 had desegregated interstate busing but divided the movement, and Martin Luther King Jr.’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference had failed in its recent attempt to desegregate Albany, Ga.

King understood that to regain momentum and win national support for desegregation, the movement needed, as Paul Kix writes in his new book about the Birmingham campaign, “to be met by violent white authority.” Peaceful demonstrators would have to draw the city’s notoriously brutal municipal authorities into a confrontation that would likely result in bloodshed and jail time — and do so in front of reporters and television cameras for all the world to see.

The plan flopped. Most Black citizens declined to march, less from fear of bodily harm than from fear of being blacklisted from the livelihoods on which their families depended. The cautious Black press called the S.C.L.C. demonstrations “wasteful and worthless.” By the end of the campaign’s second week, the city of Birmingham had obtained an injunction against the marches and King was in jail.

To save the campaign, James Bevel, a mystical figure who had been key to organizing the Freedom Rides as well as earlier sit-ins in Nashville, proposed tapping into the spirited energy of Birmingham’s youth. Many in the S.C.L.C.’s leadership, including King, found the idea appalling, pointing out that Birmingham’s jails were no place for kids. King asked Bevel what he thought the cutoff age for participation should be. None, Bevel insisted. If the kids could walk, they could march.

The title of Kix’s book, “You Have to Be Prepared to Die Before You Can Begin to Live,” is a line of bravado spoken by Fred Shuttlesworth, the most committed of Birmingham’s organizers, but it was the local youth who put this notion to the test. Movement leaders may have “acted on their optimism,” as Kix writes approvingly, but they exacted a painful victory by throwing thousands of the city’s young people into battle against a white supremacy that they themselves feared.

Kix, a journalist and the author of the biographical thriller “The Saboteur,” about a World War II French Resistance hero, makes no claim on the layers of scholarly debate that have built up around the history of racial politics in the United States. In his new book, in lieu of analysis, he opts for character development and edge-of-your-seat drama. This is history as motion picture: short chapters like rapid scene changes, historical actors as a vivid ensemble cast and suspenseful plot over explication. His conceit works magnificently; the story is a gripping reminder that organizing is difficult work, that it requires faith and discipline, and that the best-laid plans can lead simultaneously to the worst and most successful outcomes.

Instead of the bold, iconic King of national mythology, Kix reveals him at his most vulnerable. As the Birmingham campaign faltered, King turned inward. Emerging from the solitude of his hotel room meditations, he decided to march, in violation of the injunction. On Good Friday, 1963, he removed his preacher’s suit, put on workman’s clothes and walked with 40 others — soon followed by hundreds more — toward certain jail. The city’s Black residents lined the way, falling to their knees in prayer. King was almost immediately arrested.

Alone and behind bars, he faced what he called the “longest, most frustrating and bewildering hours” of his life. King’s time in jail makes for some of the book’s most enthralling chapters, as we watch him wrestle with his fate. Quoting Gandhi and Reinhold Niebuhr from memory, he poured his thoughts onto scraps of paper to be smuggled out by his attorney. The scraps yielded one of the great documents of American dissent, “Letter From Birmingham Jail.” Yet that, too, proved inadequate to galvanize a flailing project.

The richness of Kix’s dramatis personae simply staggers. Shuttlesworth, the Birmingham activist, emerges miraculously from the bombing of his home on Christmas Day, 1956, protected by either a mattress or God himself. Harry Belafonte, the smart and suave actor-turned-movement-benefactor, plays no small role in the Birmingham plan through his New York gatherings that financed the campaign and paid bail for jailed protesters. There is King himself, criticized as “De Lawd” by young activists who question his high-flying tactics and tendency to parachute into a community and quickly depart. And there is Bevel, the grass-roots organizer who plays the foil to King and his top-down approach. Finally, there is Bull Connor, Birmingham’s commissioner of public safety and one of the most notorious overseers of white power in the South, who ordered firefighters to blast children with their hoses.

The 10 weeks of organized resistance that eventually went by the name “Project C,” for “confrontation” — and which some activists called “Bombingham” — were staged mostly for an audience of two: Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy and his brother President John F. Kennedy. As few today understand, and Kix might have emphasized more, civil rights leaders pushed local campaigns only in part to integrate specific towns. The larger goal was to trigger federal intervention, through the passage of civil and voting rights laws.

Black people needed federal protection to escape the daily terror of home rule. Television footage and still photos of Birmingham’s youth plastered against buildings by torrents of water, shrinking from snarling dogs and marching with formidable nonviolent discipline helped make the case for federal involvement to the nation. So many kids were arrested that hundreds were relocated from city jails to the county fairgrounds, to cattle yards surrounded by chain-link fences, a scene with all the optics of a concentration camp.

Like many event histories, Kix’s suffers from a bit of structural myopia. Everything is filtered through a single moment and place, even though one event, however significant, cannot possibly bear the burden of historical explanation. Project C was monumentally important, but the suggestion here that there was a bright line between Birmingham and the Kennedys’ turn toward championing civil rights is too simple. What would become the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was the result of a confluence of factors, from the Freedom Rides and Gov. George Wallace’s infamous “stand in the schoolhouse door” (to prevent the integration of the University of Alabama) to the Kennedys’ tactical calculations about the right moment to act, knowing that a civil rights bill would alienate their party’s Southern wing.

The passage of civil rights and voting laws also lay beyond President Kennedy’s political capacity, no matter what happened in Alabama. Legislative victories in this domain depended on the ugly fact of Kennedy’s assassination, and, subsequently, the parliamentary genius and political ruthlessness of President Lyndon B. Johnson.

Kix begins and ends his book with thoughts on a notorious photo of a young Black man who appears to be on the verge of being torn apart by a police dog. The S.C.L.C. promoted the photo as evidence of the stoic nature of the resistance in Birmingham. But the young man was not a protester, and his family was critical of King’s coming to their city. The movement’s leaders knew what Kix clearly knows: Stories matter, and can be told in a number of ways.

Jefferson Cowie is the author, most recently, of “Freedom’s Dominion: A Saga of White Resistance to Federal Power,” which won the 2023 Pulitzer Prize for history.

YOU HAVE TO BE PREPARED TO DIE BEFORE YOU CAN BEGIN TO LIVE: Ten Weeks in Birmingham That Changed America | By Paul Kix | 378 pp. | Celadon Books | $30

magnifier linkedin facebook pinterest youtube rss twitter instagram facebook-blank rss-blank linkedin-blank pinterest youtube twitter instagram