In honor of Black History Month, all month long we will be sharing the legacies and stories of the heroes, sheroes, and events in the fight for Black suffrage on social media under the hashtag #VRABlackHistory. Follow us on Twitter (@VRAmatters) to share your own facts.
Today we honor the Children’s Crusade. The Children’s Crusade was the successful effort by the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) and its leaders, Martin Luther King Jr, Rev. James Bevel, Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth, and Dorothy Cotton to desegregate Birmingham, Alabama.
Background of Birmingham
Birmingham was notoriously known for being a place of such intense and violent racism- so much so, that activists referred to it as “Bombingham”. And Birmingham even had policies that dictated what day Blacks were allowed to go to many places like the fairgrounds. The days Blacks were admitted to go to these places were known as “colored days”. When Martin Luther King’s desegregation campaign was failing due to the lack of adults who were willing to participate, King considered leaving Birmingham. However, Dorothy Cotton and James Bevel had been holding meetings with the children of Birmingham, and they raised the idea to King to have a large Children’s March. King and others within the SCLC debated about it, and in the end King decided to give it a try.
The Children Take the Mantle and Lead the Way
King held a civil rights meeting and made the call. Some children like 12 year old Freeman Hrabowski III, who had heard King’s call while he was sitting in the back of the church doing his math homework, had the reluctant permission from their parents, while other kids like 16-year-old Jesse Shepherd and 14-year-old Carolyn Mckinstry did not have permission from their parents.
Other children who had been working with Bevel and Cotton overtime would become leaders and teachers of the children. The protests organizers required all the children to register that they were planning to attend and then attend classes where they were taught to not use violence. Gwen Gamble was a 16 year old girl who had been jailed in Birmingham for 5 days for participating in a lunch-counter sit-in. She was responsible for recruiting children for the children’s march, teaching the children non-violent strategies and about what they might encounter, and for signaling to the students when it was time to leave class.
1,000 Children between the ages of 6-18 left their classes in the middle of the day on May 2nd, 1963, and marched on 16th Street. Of the 1,000 that marched the first day, about 600 were arrested, and when the paddy wagons were full, the police began to use busses. Undeterred, the next day, hundreds more children came out. Bull Connor was the notorious racist Commissioner of Public Safety of Birmingham, and ordered the police department to bring out high-powered hoses and dogs. The hoses were turned on to full power and knocked the children off their feet; the dogs were set lose and attacked the children; and, police were beating children with their batons. Once again, hundreds of children were also arrested that night.
The Outcome of the Children’s Crusade
The courage and determination of the children soon inspired the Birmingham adults to join in the crusade, and the next day the protests continued, with more and more children and adults arrested. However, reporters had been taking pictures and videos of the protests since May 2nd, and images of the violence towards the children shook the nation and the world. In addition to protests, people began boycotting businesses in Birmingham.
The Children’s Crusade swayed public opinion in favor of the civil rights movement, and the U.S. Department of Justice and Birmingham residents- White and Black- began to mount pressure on the city of Birmingham. The protest and boycotts continued until May 5th, when city officials finally agreed to meet with civil rights leaders. On May 10th, an agreement was reached. “City leaders agreed to desegregate business and to free all who had been jailed during the demonstrations” on the condition that the protesters would end the boycotts and demonstrations. "A week and a half later, the Birmingham board of education announced that all students who participated in the demonstrations would be either suspended or expelled. The SCLC and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) immediately took the issue to the local federal district court, where the judge upheld the ruling. On 22 May, the same day as the initial ruling, the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals reversed the decision and condemned the board of education for its actions.”
The Effect of the Children’s Crusade Today
Although King was criticized by people like Malcolm X for using children, if he hadn’t agreed to the Children’s Crusade, he wouldn’t have won the civil rights battle in Birmingham and the movement may never have matured and expanded. Nor, would the famous "Letter from a Birmingham Jail" have become the inspirational guidebook for generations of racial justice activists. The Children’s Crusade was a pivotal and needed moment in the Civil Rights movement and not only did it succeed in it’s mission of de-segregation but it laid the groundwork for the Civil Rights Act of 1965. And what was once known as a “symbol of hard-core resistance to integration” by King himself now “has an African-American mayor, a majority-black City Council, and a black superintendent of schools” (in 2013). Freeman Hrabowski III is now (2013) the President of the University of Maryland of Baltimore County (UMBC). Carolyn Mckinstry is now a reverend and author of the book “While the World Watched”.
Watch below as managing editor Kim Lawton looks at the march's legacy and interviews some of those who marched as children, including University of Maryland, Baltimore County President Freeman Hrabowski: