“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 hundreds of children and youths in Birmingham, Alabama who decided sixty years ago this week that they were determined to do whatever it took to stand up for freedom for their parents, elders, and themselves. They were assaulted by fire hoses and police dogs, went to jail by the hundreds, and finally broke the back of Jim Crow in the city known as “Bombingham.” On this 60th anniversary of the Birmingham Children’s Crusade it is again time to remember, honor, and follow the example of the children who were frontline soldiers and transforming catalysts in 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 (SCLC), together with the Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights and its fearless leader Reverend Fred Shuttlesworth, had started a desegregation campaign in the city. There were mass meetings, lunch counter sit-ins, nonviolent marches, and boycotts of Birmingham’s segregated stores during the busy Easter shopping season. Dr. King was one of several hundred people arrested in the first weeks of the campaign when he was jailed for violating an anti-protest injunction on Good Friday, April 12, and four days later wrote his famous “Letter from Birmingham Jail.” But as the days went on with little response from city leaders, a new tactic was raised: including more children and youths.
Young people didn’t face some of the risks adults might, including losing bread winning jobs, and college students had already proven to be extremely effective activists in cities across the South. But once it became clear that many of the children volunteering for meetings and training sessions in Birmingham were high school students or even younger, concerns were raised about whether allowing 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.” Their response, he said, “exceeded our fondest dreams.”
For the children May 2 was “D-Day.” Black disc jockeys were key allies in encouraging and deploying their listeners, and class presidents, star athletes, and prom queens from local 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 hundreds were arrested. Segregationist police commissioner Bull Connor’s overwhelmed force started using school buses to take the children to jail. But that first wave of children 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 marchers. The searing heartbreaking pictures of children being battered by powerful fire hoses and attacked by police dogs appeared on front pages around the country and world and helped turned the tide of public opinion in support of the fight for justice.
Marches and protests continued in Birmingham with children leading the way. As more were arrested and attacked others kept coming to take their place, leaving jails so overflowing some child prisoners were held at the city’s fairground and 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.
Hateful 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 deliberately set to go off Sunday morning. The bomb exploded as children were in the church’s basement preparing to lead Youth Sunday services, and fourteen-year-olds Addie Mae Collins, Carole Robertson, and Cynthia Wesley and 11-year-old Denise McNair were killed, with more than 20 others injured.
Months later, when an interviewer asked Dr. King how he felt after that bombing, he first described his despair at thinking if men could be that bestial maybe there really was no hope. But, he said, time 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 added: “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 still inspire us today.
Marian Wright Edelman is Founder and President Emerita of the Children’s Defense Fund whose Leave No Child Behind® mission is to ensure every child a Healthy Start, a Head Start, a Fair Start, a Safe Start and a Moral Start in life and successful passage to adulthood with the help of caring families and communities.