• Sarita Walker

Black American History Year Round: The Children's Crusade of 1963

Black Americans have been marching, protesting, and fighting for equal rights for decades.

Early in 1963, civil rights leaders in the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) and other civil rights groups developed a plan to desegregate Birmingham. At the time, Birmingham was popular for its discriminatory practices in employment and civil life. The demonstrations started in April of 1963 as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Reverend Ralph Abernathy and Reverend Fred Shuttlesworth led thousands of African American protestors in Birmingham.


The launch of the demonstrations began with mass meetings, a boycott of downtown merchants, lunch counter sit-ins, kneel-ins at churches, sit-ins at the library, and a march on the county courthouse to register voters. On April 10, 1963, the city government obtained a state court injunction against the protests however two days later they violated the injunction and King was arrested and sent to jail. While King was imprisoned, he wrote a “Letter from Birmingham Jail”, which was a response to 8 Birmingham clergymen who had a lot of negative things to say about the protest. King wrote a very compelling letter quoting:


"Oppressed people cannot remain oppressed forever. The urge for freedom will eventually come. This is what has happened to the American Negro."

and

"For years now I have heard the word 'wait.' It rings in the ear of every Negro with a piercing familiarity. This 'wait' has almost always meant 'never.'"


The protests were the people saying we are fed up, and you are going to give us our rights and you are going to give them to us now. With King released on bail on April 20,1963, the SCLC staff member James Bevel proposed recruiting local students, arguing that children had less to lose, unlike their parents who had jobs in jeopardy.

Photo Credit: Newsela

The “Children’s Crusade” was a continuation protest that was supposed to also use non-violence and challenge Birmingham's civic and business leaders to stop the segregation tactics.

Photo Credit: Zinn Education Project

Thousands of children were trained in the tactics of non-violence, and on May 2, they left the 16th Street Baptist Church in groups, heading throughout the city to protest peacefully. On the first day, hundreds of children were arrested and on the second day Commissioner of Public Safety Bull Connor, ordered police to spray the children with powerful water hoses, hit them with batons and threaten them with police dogs.


Photo Credit: Nydailynews.com

By the 5th day, more and more protestors were showing up, and by now the nation was awakened to the horror that was going on. The jail where the children were held as prisoners was surrounded by protestors, singing and still displaying no acts of violence. Finally, local officials agreed to meet with civil rights leaders and on May 10, city leaders agreed to desegregate businesses and free all those who had been jailed during the demonstrations.

The Leesburg Stockade Girls
Photo Credit: National Museum of African American History

Photo Credit: Theweek.com

"There were 25 to 40 to 50 sheriffs across the road with these little batons in their hands."- Charles Avery Jr. (American Freedom Stories Documentary)


"We were standing around shoulder to shoulder and they called for school buses to get us." - Janice Kelsey( Civil Rights Foots Soldier)



Photo Credit: Missoula Current

Attorney General Robert Kennedy sent Burke Marshall, his chief civil rights assistant, to negotiate with Black citizens and Birmingham city business leadership. King and the other leaders agreed on May 8, 1963, and called off further demonstrations. On May 10, 1963, King and Fred Shuttlesworth announced an agreement with the city of Birmingham to desegregate lunch counters, restrooms, drinking fountains, and department store fitting rooms within ninety days, to hire Black people in stores as salesmen and clerks, and to release other hundreds of jail protesters on bond.


Photo Credit: Zinn Education Project
Photo Credit: PBS


This didn't happen without backlash. The very next day, a bomb damaged the Gaston Motel where King and SCLC members were staying. The home of King’s brother and Birmingham resident, Alfred Daniel King, was bombed. The Birmingham Board of Education announced that all students who had been involved in the Children’s Crusade would be expelled but of course that was overturned by the Court of Appeals.


Four months later, on September 15, 1963, Ku Klux Klan (KKK) members bombed Birmingham’s Sixteen Street Baptist Church where many demonstrators hung out. Four young Black girls—Addie Mae Collins, Cynthia Wesley, Carole Robertson, and Carol Denise McNair, were killed.


All of this in response to a group of people that wanted equality!


Check out this short documentary called American Freedom Stories from Civil Rights Foot Soldiers; documented by Biography.


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