“Daddy,” the boy said, “I don’t want to disobey you, but I have made my pledge. If you try to keep me home, I will sneak off. If you think I deserve to be punished for that, I’ll just have to take the punishment. For, you see, I’m not doing this only because I want to be free. I’m doing it also because I want freedom for you and Mama, and I want it to come before you die.”
This teenage boy overheard talking to his father by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was one of the many hundreds of Birmingham children and youths who 55 years ago this month decided to stand up for their and all our freedom. They stood up to fire hoses and police dogs, went to jail, and finally broke the back of Jim Crow in that city known as “Bombingham.” Last week, Jack and Jill of America, Inc. invited the Children’s Defense Fund to come together with them and over 2,000 children, youths and families from across the country in Birmingham’s Civil Rights District to commemorate that inspiring and courageous act of resistance and peaceful protest that played a pivotal role in changing American history. The anniversary celebration of the Birmingham Children’s Crusade was designed to remember, honor and follow the example of those frontline child soldiers and transforming catalysts in America’s greatest moral movement of the twentieth century – the movement for civil rights and equal justice.
The Children’s Crusade happened at a critical time in the civil rights struggle in Birmingham. In April 1963 the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, together with the Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights and its great and fearless leader Reverend Fred Shuttlesworth, had started a direct action desegregation campaign in the city. There were mass meetings, lunch counter sit-ins, nonviolent marches, and boycotts of segregated stores during the busy Easter shopping season. Dr. King became one of several hundred people arrested in the first weeks of the campaign when he was jailed for violating an anti-protest injunction on April 12, Good Friday, and four days later wrote his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.” As the days went on with little response from city leaders a new idea was raised: including more children and youths.
Children didn’t face some of the risks adults might, including losing breadwinning jobs, and college students had already proven to be extremely effective activists in cities across the South in desegregating lunch counters. But once it became clear that many of the children volunteering for meetings and training sessions in Birmingham were high school students and some even younger, concern was raised about whether allowing and encouraging them to protest was too dangerous. Dr. King later described the decision this way: “Even though we realized that involving teenagers and high-school students would bring down upon us a heavy fire of criticism, we felt that we needed this dramatic new dimension. Our people were demonstrating daily and going to jail in numbers, but we were still beating our heads against the brick wall of the city officials’ stubborn resolve to maintain the status quo. Our fight, if won, would benefit people of all ages. But most of all we were inspired with a desire to give to our young a true sense of their own stake in freedom and justice. We believed they would have the courage to respond to our call.”
The children’s response “exceeded our fondest dreams.” James Bevel, Andrew Young, Bernard Lee, and Dorothy Cotton helped identify and train the students. Black disc jockeys were key allies in encouraging and deploying their listeners. May 2 was “D-Day.” Class presidents, star athletes, and prom queens from local high schools led the way as hundreds of children skipped class, gathered at the 16th Street Baptist Church, and marched into downtown Birmingham in groups of fifty, organized into lines two by two and singing freedom songs. More than a thousand students marched the first day and many hundreds were arrested. Virulently racist police commissioner Bull Connor’s overwhelmed force started using school buses to take the children to jail. But that first wave was only the beginning. When hundreds more returned the next day, Bull Connor directed the police and fire department to begin using force on the child marchers. The decision surprised even those used to his meanness and brutality but it was not enough to stop the determined young marchers. The searing heartbreaking pictures of children being battered and tossed about by powerful fire hoses and attacked by police dogs appeared on front pages around the country and world and helped turn the tide of public opinion in support of Dr. King’s local and the national civil rights movement’s fight for justice.
Marches and protests continued in Birmingham with children leading the way. As some were arrested and attacked more and more kept coming to take their place, leaving Birmingham jails so overflowing that some child prisoners were held at the city’s fairground and others in an open-air stockade where they were pelted by rain. On May 8 a temporary truce was called and on May 10 an agreement was reached that released the jailed children and others on bond and paved the way for desegregation of Birmingham’s public facilities. But hateful White segregationists in the city did not give in quietly. Within hours the Gaston Motel where Dr. King and other SCLC leaders stayed and Dr. King’s brother Reverend A.D. King’s home were firebombed. Four months later, a bomb was placed under the steps of the 16th Street Baptist Church with a timer set to go off Sunday morning that exploded as children were in the church’s basement preparing to lead Youth Sunday services. Fourteen-year-olds Addie Mae Collins, Carole Robertson, and Cynthia Wesley and 11-year-old Denise McNair were killed and more than 20 others were injured.
More than a year later, when one interviewer asked Dr. King how he felt after that bombing, he first described his despair at thinking that if men could be that bestial maybe there really was no hope. But, he said, time had eventually “buoyed me with the inspiration of another moment which I shall never forget: when I saw with my own eyes over three thousand young Negro boys and girls, totally unarmed, leave Birmingham’s 16th Street Baptist Church to march to a prayer meeting – ready to pit nothing but the power of their bodies and souls against Bull Connor’s police dogs, clubs, and fire hoses.” He told the same interviewer: “I never will forget a moment in Birmingham when a white policeman accosted a little Negro girl, seven or eight years old, who was walking in a demonstration with her mother. ‘What do you want?’ the policeman asked her gruffly, and the little girl looked him straight in the eye and answered, ‘Fee-dom.’ She couldn’t even pronounce it, but she knew. It was beautiful! Many times when I have been in sorely trying situations, the memory of that little one has come into my mind, and has buoyed me.”
The same example that buoyed Dr. King should inspire us today. It has been thrilling to see young people step forward to protest the egregious actions this Administration is taking against immigrants. It has been thrilling to see young people mobilized to reaffirm that Black Lives Matter. It was thrilling for those who participated in the March for Our Lives to hear so many young people from the stage speaking to the need to Protect Children, Not Guns and to see so many others taking part in school walkouts across the country – all nonviolently! And it was thrilling to be in Birmingham last weekend with Jack and Jill’s wonderful families and see some of the original marchers standing up again along with a new generation of engaged children and parents to honor the sacrifices that changed Birmingham and America and pick up the baton and to sit next to the young African American Birmingham Mayor. And what an honor to arrive at the Fred Shuttlesworth International Airport named for the most courageous God fearing man I know, undeterred by multiple bombings of his churches and threats to his life. The Children’s Crusade reminds all of us that children can be transforming agents of change who can show us adults the way to becoming a just and safer nation.
Ending the violence of poverty and guns is the call before us. Let us join with our children and march and vote for freedom from both.
Marian Wright Edelman is President of the Children’s Defense Fund