The Children’s Crusade: When the Youth of Birmingham Marched for Justice
Towards the end of April 1963, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and his fellow civil rights leaders were faced with a grim reality in Birmingham, Alabama. With less support and fewer volunteers, their campaign to end segregationist policies was faltering. But when an unorthodox plan to recruit black children to march was implemented, the movement reversed, reinvigorating the fight for racial equality, in what has come to be known as the Children’s Crusade. .
King had traveled to Birmingham in the spring of 1963, along with the co-founder of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, Reverend Ralph Abernathy, in the hope of strengthening resistance against segregation in the state. The couple joined forces with the Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights, a local civil rights organization led by Fred Shuttlesworth, a prominent minister and activist.
But the Alabama movement had just come from a failed attempt to end segregation in Albany, Georgia. Overall, fewer people attended meetings, sit-ins and marches. After King was arrested and confined to a prison cell, where he wrote his famous book, Letter from a Birmingham Prison, he, along with other activists, knew that a new strategy was essential for the campaign succeed.
“The number of adults willing to volunteer, to be arrested, had steadily declined over the last two weeks of April and it looked like the movement was on the verge of collapse,” says Glenn Eskew, professor of history at Georgia State University and author of the 1997 book, But for Birmingham: local and national movements in the fight for civil rights.
Recruit children for the cause
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James Bevel, member of the SCLC, came up with the idea of including school-aged children in the protests to help disintegrate Birmingham. The strategy involved recruiting popular black high school teens, such as quarterbacks and cheerleaders, who could entice their classmates to attend meetings with them in Birmingham black churches to learn more about the movement. non violent. There was also an economic reason to involve children since adults risked being fired from their jobs for missing work and protesting.
Janice Kelsey was 15 when she attended her first reunion for the children’s crusade. “I knew what segregation and separation was, but I didn’t understand the extent or level of inequalities in that separation,” recalls Kelsey, from Birmingham, who wrote about her experience of the movement in her memoir. from 2017, I woke up with my mind on freedom.
Bevel asked the students questions who discovered that handbooks and football helmets were not what white students used. There was also not a single typewriter in the whole school, like black students had, but rooms with typewriters in white schools, Kelsey says. “Things like that got personal to me and I decided I wanted to do something about it,” she says.
King, along with other activists and members of the black community, were adamantly opposed to the involvement of children in the marches due to threats of violence from white crowds, as well as police officers led by Eugene “Bull” Connor, the public safety commissioner in Birmingham notorious for his racist policies.
Bevel, undeterred, told the children to gather at 16 Street Baptist Church on May 2, 1963. More than 1,000 students skipped school to participate in the protest. The young people, aged 7 to 18, held pickets and marched in groups of 10 to 50, singing songs of freedom.
“We were told what to expect,” Kelsey says. “We even saw film strips of people sitting at counters having lunch and being spat and pushed and all that. We have been told that if you decide to participate it is a nonviolent movement so you cannot fight back. “
Nonviolent student protesters face arrests and arrests
The demonstrators had several destinations: some went to the town hall, others went to the food counters or the shopping district of the city center. They walked daily for almost a week.
“It was well thought out,” says Vicki Crawford, director of the Martin Luther King, Jr. collection at Morehouse College. “It wasn’t just a group of people calling to meet downtown. There was mobilization and organization, following King’s Six Steps of Nonviolence to bring about social change.
As the children bravely took to the streets, Birmingham police waited to arrest them, putting them in paddy wagons and school buses. Kelsey says she was arrested on the first day of her walk and was in jail for four days.
The sight of young people demonstrating peacefully reinvigorated the Birmingham movement and crowds of people began to attend meetings and join the protest again. King has also changed his mind about the effectiveness of the Children’s Crusade. Although the police were mostly contained on the first day, it did not continue. The police brought out water pipes and police dogs.
Television crews and newspapers have filmed the young protesters arrested and sprayed by Birmingham police, sparking national outrage. More than 2,000 children were reportedly arrested during the days of protests.
“They had locked up as many people as possible, and they couldn’t control him anymore. And that’s what broke the back of segregation, ”Eskew says. “A civil order collapsed because there were not enough police officers. “
Children have become a ‘catalyst for change’
When influential white businessmen and city officials saw the business district teeming with protesters, in addition to President John F. Kennedy demanding a resolution and sending Deputy Attorney General Burke Marshall to Birmingham to facilitate negotiations, the leaders of the White City called a meeting with King. A deal was made to desegregate food counters, businesses and washrooms and improve black recruiting opportunities in Birmingham.
“I think we served as a catalyst for change,” says Kelsey.
Improvements hardly happened overnight in Birmingham. In September 1963, the Ku Klux Klan bombed the 16th Street Baptist Church, killing four black girls. Yet the civil rights movement maintained its momentum and the following year President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964.