Connor was born in 1897 in Selma, Alabama, the son of Molly (Godwin) and Hugh King Connor, a train dispatcher and telegraph operator. Connor entered politics as a Democrat in 1934 (and never left the DNC), winning a seat in the Alabama House of Representatives. As a legislator, he supported populist measures and pro-union issues for white people. He voted for extending the poll tax, which served as a barrier to voter registration by poor blacks and whites, and against an anti-sedition bill intended to stifle union activity. He did not stand for a second term in 1936, instead running for Commissioner of Public Safety for the City of Birmingham. Concurrently during this period, Connor served as the radio play-by-play broadcaster of the minor league Birmingham Barons baseball club spanning the 1932 through 1936 seasons.
In 1936, Connor was elected to the office of Commissioner of Public Safety of Birmingham, beginning the first of two stretches that spanned a total of 26 years. Connor's first term ended in 1952, but he was re-elected in 1956, serving to 1963.
In 1938, Connor ran as a candidate for Governor of Alabama. He announced he would be campaigning on a platform of "protecting employment practices, law enforcement, segregation and other problems that have been historically classified as states' rights by the Democratic party".
In 1948, Connor's officers arrested the U.S. Senator from Idaho, Glen H. Taylor. He was the running mate of Progressive Party presidential candidate Henry Wallace, former Democratic Vice President. Taylor, who had attempted to speak to the Southern Negro Youth Congress, was arrested for violating Birmingham's racial segregation laws. Connor's effort to enforce the law was sparked by the group's reported communist philosophy, with Connor noting at the time, "There's not enough room in town for Bull and the Commies."
During the 1948 Democratic National Convention, Connor led the Alabama delegation in a walkout when the national party included a civil rights plank in its platform. The offshoot States' Rights Democratic Party (Dixiecrats) nominated Strom Thurmond for president at its convention in Birmingham's Municipal Auditorium.
Connor's second run for governor fell flat in 1954. He was the center of controversy that year by pushing through a city ordinance in Birmingham that outlawed "communism."
Before returning to office in 1956, Connor quickly resumed his brutal approach to dealing with perceived threats to the social order. His forces raided a meeting at the house of African-American activist, Reverend Fred Shuttlesworth, where three Montgomery ministers were attending. Connor feared that the Montgomery bus boycott underway would spread to Birmingham, in an effort to integrate city buses. He had the ministers arrested on charges of vagrancy, which did not allow a prisoner bail, nor any visitors during the first three days of their incarceration. A federal investigation followed, but Connor refused to cooperate.
Shuttlesworth had led civil rights activities despite being threatened with violence. His church was bombed twice. He, his wife, and a white minister were attacked by a racist mob after attempting to use "white" restrooms at the local bus station, which had segregated facilities.
In 1960, Connor was elected Democratic National Committeeman for Alabama, soon after filing a civil lawsuit against The New York Times for $1.5 million. He objected to what he claimed was their insinuation that he had promoted racial hatred. He dropped his claim for damages to $400,000; the case dragged on for six years until Connor lost a $40,000 judgment on appeal.
In the spring of 1961, integrated teams of civil rights activists mounted what they called "Freedom Rides" to highlight the illegal imposition of racial segregation on interstate buses, whose operations came under federal law and the constitution. They had teams on Greyhound and Trailways buses to travel through southern capitals, with the final stop intended as New Orleans. The teams encountered increasing hostility and violence as they made their way deeper into the South.
On May 2, 1961, Connor had won a landslide election for his sixth term as Commissioner of Public Safety in Birmingham. As Commissioner, Connor had administrative authority over the police and fire departments, schools, public health service, and libraries, all of which were segregated by state law. Tom King, a candidate running for mayor of Birmingham, met with Connor on May 8, 1961, to pay his respects. In addition, he asked Connor to refrain from announcing support for the other leading mayoral candidate, Art Hanes, so that King's chances would be greater. At the end of the meeting, Connor noted that he was expecting the Freedom Riders to reach Birmingham the following Sunday, Mother's Day. Connor stated, "We'll be ready for them, too," and King responded, "I bet you will, Commissioner," as he walked out.
The Freedom Riders arrived in Birmingham on May 14, 1961. After their stop in Anniston, Alabama, the Greyhound bus was attacked and they were offered no police protection. After they left the town, they were forced to stop by a violent mob that firebombed and burned the bus, but no activists were fatally hurt. A new Greyhound bus was put into service and departed for Birmingham. The activists on the earlier Trailways bus had been accosted by KKK members who got on the bus in Atlanta and beat up the activists, pushing them all to the back of the bus.
As the Trailways bus reached the terminal in Birmingham, a large mob of white Klansmen and news reporters was waiting for them. The Riders were viciously attacked soon after they got off the bus and attempted to get service at the all-white lunch counter. Some were taken to the loading dock area, away from reporters, but some reporters were also beaten viciously with metal bars, pipes and bats and one's camera was destroyed. After fifteen minutes, the police finally arrived but by then most Klansmen had left.
Connor made no arrests and his forces had permitted the KKK time to attack the activists before moving into the scene. Connor purposely let the Klansmen beat the Riders for fifteen minutes with no police interference. He publicly blamed the violence on many factors, saying that "No policemen were in sight as the buses arrived, because they were visiting their mothers on Mother's Day". Connor insisted that the violence came from out-of-town meddlers and that police had rushed to the scene "as quickly as possible." The violence was covered by national media.
"As I have said on numerous occasions, we are not going to stand for this in Birmingham. And if necessary we will fill the jail full and we don't care whose toes we step on. I am saying now to these meddlers from out of our city the best thing for them to do is stay out if they don't want to get slapped in jail. Our people of Birmingham are a peaceful people and we never have any trouble here unless some people come into our city looking for trouble. And I've never seen anyone yet look for trouble who wasn't able to find it".
In 1962, Connor ordered the closing of 60 Birmingham parks rather than follow a federal court order to desegregate public facilities.
In November 1962, Birmingham voters changed the city's form of government. Rather than at-large election of three commissioners, who had specific oversight of certain city departments, there would be a mayor-council form of government. Members of the city council were to be elected from nine single-member districts. Blacks were still largely disenfranchised. The city had changed its government in response to the extremely negative perception of the city. It had been derisively nicknamed "Bombingham," by outsiders for numerous attacks on civil rights activists and blacks moving into new areas of the city. For instance, in 1961 when the president of the city's Chamber of Commerce was visiting Japan, he saw a newspaper photo of a bus engulfed in flames, which occurred during the Freedom Rides. Bull Connor arranged for opponents to have time to attack civil rights activists when their bus reached Birmingham.
Endorsed by Governor George C. Wallace, Connor attempted to run for mayor, but lost on April 2, 1963. Connor and his fellow commissioners filed suit to block the change in power, but on May 23, 1963, the Supreme Court of Alabama ruled against them. Connor ended his 23-year tenure in the post. Connor, citing a general law, had argued that the change could not take effect until the October 1 following the date of the election, but the Supreme Court of Alabama held that the general law was preempted by a special law applicable only to the City of Birmingham.
Local civil rights activists had been unable to negotiate much change with the city or business leaders, in their efforts to gain integration of facilities and hiring of blacks by local businesses. They invited Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and his team to help mount a more concerted campaign. The day after the April election, he and local civil rights leaders began "Project 'C'" (for "confrontation") in Birmingham against the business community. They used economic boycotts and demonstrations to seek integration of stores and job opportunities. Throughout April 1963 Martin Luther King led smaller demonstrations, which resulted in his arrest along with many others.
King wanted to have massive arrests to highlight the brutal police tactics used by Connor and his subordinates. (By extension, the campaign was intended to demonstrate the general suppression by other Southern police officials as well). After King was arrested and jailed, he wrote his Letter from Birmingham Jail, which became noted as an expression of moral argument for civil rights activism. The goal of the campaign was to gain mass arrests of non-violent protesters and overwhelm the judicial and penal systems. It would also demonstrate to national media and local residents the strong desire of African Americans to exercise their constitutional rights as citizens.
In the final phase of Project C, James Bevel, SCLC's Director of Direct Action, introduced a revolutionary and controversial new tactic to use young people in the demonstrations. Most adults were working and could not afford to keep losing time at work. On May 2, 1963, the first youths and students walked out of the 16th Street Baptist Church and attempted to march to Birmingham's City Hall to talk to the Mayor. By the end of the day 959 children, ranging from ages 6–18, had been arrested.
The next day, even more students joined the marches. Connor ordered the use of fire hoses and attack dogs against them. This did not stop the demonstrators, but generated bad publicity for Connor through the news media. The use of fire hoses continued, and by May 7, Connor and the police department had jailed more than 3,000 demonstrators.
The blacks' economic boycott of businesses that refused to hire them and downtown stores that kept segregated facilities helped gain negotiation by the city's business leaders. The SCLC and the Senior Citizens Committee, who represented a majority of Birmingham businesses, came to an agreement. On May 10, they agreed on desegregation of lunch counters, restrooms, fitting rooms and drinking fountains at department stores, the upgrading in position and hiring of blacks, cooperation with SCLC legal representatives in releasing all jailed persons, and the establishment of formal communication between black and whites through the Senior Citizens Committee.
On June 3, 1964, Connor resumed a place in government when he was elected as President of the Alabama Public Service Commission. He suffered a stroke on December 7, 1966, and he used a wheelchair for the rest of his life. He was present on February 16, 1968, when the Haleyville, Alabama police station made the first use of 9-1-1 as an emergency telephone number in the United States. Months later, Connor won another term, but he was defeated in 1972.
He suffered another stroke on February 26, 1973, which left him unconscious. He died a few weeks later, in March of that year. Survivors included his widow, Beara, a daughter and a brother, King Edward Connor.
Connor's brutality and tolerance for violence against civil rights activists contributed to KKK and other violence against blacks in the city of Birmingham. On a Sunday in September 1963, the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing destroyed much of the church that had been the center of the civil rights campaign, causing the death of four African-American girls. The city and movement leaders had just reached a negotiated agreement on integration of facilities and jobs.Connor is mentioned in contemporary folk singer Phil Ochs's 1965 song Talking Birmingham Jam.Spike Lee's documentary 4 Little Girls (1997) (about the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing, includes footage of Connor and interviews with people describing police tactics during his tenure).Footage of Connor also appears in the film Our Friend, Martin, in which he is voiced by veteran voice artist Frank Welker.