In order to sustain the campaign, SCLC organizer James Bevel proposed using young children in demonstrations. Bevel’s rationale for the Children’s Crusade was that young people represented an untapped source of freedom fighters without the prohibitive responsibilities of older activists (Birmingham Campaign Stanford 1).
Who was James Bevel?
Born in the Mississippi Delta in 1936, one of seventeen children, Bevel came to
, in 1957 to attend the
American Baptist Theological Seminary to become a preacher. Along with John Lewis, Diane Nash, and
Bernard Lafayette, he attended James Lawson’s workshops that introduced the
principles of non-violent direct action.
Bevel participated in the Nashville,
sit-ins in 1961, became a leader of the newly formed Student Nonviolent
Coordinating Committee (SNCC), and married Diane Nash. Bevel selected the student teams that rode
the Freedom Ride buses from Nashville Birmingham, Alabama, to Jackson, Mississippi, and was arrested in Jackson
for attempting to desegregate the
bus terminal’s white waiting room. While
in the Jackson
jail, he and Bernard Lafayette started the Mississippi Voting Rights Movement.
They, Nash, and others stayed in Jackson
to work on grassroots organizing. In
1962, following James Lawson’s suggestion, Bevel was invited to meet with
Martin Luther King Jr. in Mississippi .
Bevel and King agreed to work together on an equal basis, neither having veto
power over the other, on projects under the auspices of the Southern Christian
Leadership Conference (SCLC). They agreed to work together until they had ended
segregation, obtained voting rights, and ensured that all American children had
a quality education. Bevel became SCLC's Director of Direct Action and
Director of Nonviolent Education to augment King's positions as SCLC's Chairman
and spokesperson. Atlanta
Bevel believed that, unlike their parents, children were immune from economic retribution.
Most adults have bills to pay -- house notes, rents, car notes, utility bills -- but the young people . . . are not hooked with all those responsibilities. A boy from high school has the same effect in terms of being in jail, in terms of putting pressure on the city, as his father, and yet there's no economic threat to the family, because the father is still on the job" (Cozzens 1).
Interviewed before his death in 2009, Bevel had much to say about his decision to use children.
In ’63 in
felt that segregation was permanent. That it was just that way, a permanent
system. People’s homes and churches had been bombed, people had been lynched
and killed and there was no process by which you could gain redress to your
I had come out of the
Nashville movement and the movement, where we had basically
used young people all the time. And at first King didn’t want me to use young
people in Mississippi Birmingham, because I had 80 charges
of contributing to the delinquency of a minor against me in ,
for sending young people on the Freedom Ride. Jackson, Mississippi
At that point that was about only five to ten, twelve adults who would go on demonstrations each day. My position was, you can’t get the dialogue you need with so few people. Besides, most adults have bills to pay, house notes, rents, car notes, utility bills.
We said to them [high school students] you’re adults, but you’re still sort of living on your mamas and your daddies. It is your responsibility, in that you don’t have to pay the bills, to confront the segregation question. We went around and started organizing say like the queens of the high schools, the basketball stars, the football stars, so you get the influence and power leaders involved. And then they in turn got all the other students involved. . . .
First thing we did, there’s a film, The
and Story. It was an
NBC White Paper. We would show that film in all of the schools. Then we would
say to the students, you are responsible for segregation, you and your parents,
because you have not stood up. Nashville
Our position was that, according to the Bible and the Constitution, no one has the power to oppress you if you don’t cooperate. If you say you are oppressed, then you are also acknowledging that you are in league with the oppressor. Now it’s your responsibility to break league with the oppressor.
They responded beautifully. Your first response is from the young women. I guess, from about 13 to18. They’re probably the more responsive in terms of courage, confidence and the ability to follow reasoning and logic. Nonviolence to them — it’s logical that you should love people, you shouldn’t violate people, you shouldn’t violate property. There’s a way to solve all problems without violating. Nonviolence is uncomfortable. It’s inconvenient. But if you maintain your position, the threat goes away.
Then the elementary students. They can comprehend. I guess the last guys to get involved was the high school guys. Because the brunt of the violence in the South was directed towards the young males. The females didn’t have the kind of immediate fear, say, of white policemen, as the young men did. So their involvement was more spontaneous (James 1-4).
Martin Luther King, released from jail April 20, was hesitant, fearing for the children’s safety. He prayed and reflected and finally accepted that putting children in danger could help determine their future.
King had witnessed the youthful energy that propelled the 1961 Freedom Rides. As John Lewis, who at age 21 was beaten bloody during the rides, recalled: “We considered it natural and necessary to involve children — adolescents — in the movement. We weren’t far from being teenagers ourselves, and we shared many of the same basic feelings of adolescence: unbounded idealism, courage unclouded by ‘practical’ concerns, faith and optimism untrampled by the ‘realities’ of the adult world. (Levingston 2).
Student participants recalled the following.
“We were told in some of the mass meetings that the day would come when we could really do something about all of these inequities that we were experiencing. And we were calling it D-Day. That was May 2, 1963,” remembers Janice Kelsey. Kelsey was one of thousands of young people who participated in a series of non-violent demonstrations known as the Children’s Crusade in Birmingham, Alabama, during the first week of May 1963. For many African-American children in
, the Civil
Rights Movement was already part of their lives. They had witnessed their
parents involvement through mass meetings organized at churches like the Birmingham 16th Street Baptist
Church. While many parents and Civil Rights leaders were cautious about
involving young people in the protests, it turned out that the brave actions of
these children helped make lasting change in at a key turning point in the
movement (Gilmore 1). Birmingham
Doing volunteer work at her church, Sixteenth Street Baptist, Carolyn McKinstry, 14, overheard the ministers calling on children to march. “It was such an excitement in the air I knew I wanted to be part of it.” She did not tell her parents, especially her strict father. “I know if I had asked he would have said no. … We were told what to expect when we marched, if we did encounter the police. They might hit you, they might spit on you, they will have dogs and billy clubs but the only appropriate response ever is no response, or a prayerful response.”
Freeman Hrabowski was 12 when he was forced by his parents to attend a meeting at the
. Years later he recalled: “I was not a courageous kid. I did not get
into fights. The only thing I would attack was a math problem. … Children
knew, children of color were well aware we were considered second class.” Sitting in the back of the church doing his
math homework, he heard Martin Luther King make the call for child volunteers:
“… if the children participate in this
demonstration, in this peaceful demonstration, all of America will see that
even children understand the difference between right and wrong and that
children want the best possible education.”
He asked his parents’ permission to participate. They adamantly refused. Sixteenth
I was very upset, and I said to them, “Then you guys are hypocrites. You told me to go and listen to the minister. I did. I want to do what he suggested and you’re saying no.” But at that time you did not say that to your parents. So my father said very calmly, “Go to your room.”
The next morning his parents sat next to him on his bed.
I could tell they had been crying. I’d never seen my parents cry. And they said they’d been praying all night. And they said this to me: “It wasn’t that we didn’t trust you. We simply didn’t know who’d be responsible for you and how you’d be treated if you were placed in jail.” And so they thought about it and they said, “But we have decided to leave it in God’s hands” (
It was King’s words that inspired 16-year-old Raymond Goolsby to participate in the march.
“Rev. Martin Luther King stood right beside me,” remembers Goolsby... “He said, ‘I think it’s a mighty fine thing for children, what you’re doing because when you march, you’re really standing up; because a man can’t ride your back unless it is bent.’ And, boy, I mean he talked so eloquent and fast, after he finished his motivational speech, I was ready” (Joiner 2).
A second reason parents had for not wanting their children participating in any demonstration was that they were concerned that they might be fired from their jobs.
“I wanted to [participate in the Children’s March], and asked my parents and they said no,” recalled Mary Bush, who was 15-years-old in 1963. “My father said no. One, [it was] too dangerous. And two, the other had to be my father’s concern about his job. And his ability to support us if anything happened to his job because jobs were threatened.
Bush’s father was not the only one concerned about job security. Mary Gadson’s mother, who worked in white homes as a domestic, was grilled incessantly by her employer. “They were constantly asking, “Is your child involved in this stuff? I hope she isn’t.”
James Stewart, who was 16 years of age when the marches took place, remembered having been disappointed by his parents’ lack of involvement in the movement. “I had some feeling about that. At that age, I felt everybody should be involved -- we should all go down, the entire city. Even when we began to demonstrate, I saw a lot of older black adults not going, and I judged them at that time. But I began to understand when I got older that they had jobs. I found out that under no uncertain terms, if you were absent, if you were arrested, if you were anywhere near the civil rights movement demonstrations on [D-Day] or any time after, you would be fired. So they had families and mortgages and things like that. And I think that is why [the] youth provided a certain strength and energy to the movement.”
Stewart was right. The majority of black adults worked for businesses owned and operated by whites. With their family’s well-being at stake, most parents distanced themselves from the movement, although many supported it secretly. Despite their parents’ warning, Stewart and others carried on (Jeter-Bennett 244-248).
On the morning of Thursday, May 2, 1963, local WENN disc jockey Shelley “Playboy” Stewart took to the airwaves to remind his youthful audience that “there’s going to be a party at the park.” He told them not to “forget your toothbrushes because hot luncheon will be served.” Only those who knew about the protest march scheduled for later that afternoon could decipher Playboy’s encrypted message. And they took heed. As the students prepared for school, they added a toothbrush, toothpaste, and a bar of soap to their knapsacks.
Some parents knew what was going on, but certainly not all. Many children hid their involvement in the movement from their parents, and for good reason. The thought of children squaring off against police officers and possibly white reactionaries could be overwhelming. Fearing what awaited young demonstrators, some adults forbade their children to march. Gwen Webb’s mother ordered her to go to school and stay clear of the march. “I told my mother, ‘I hear you.’ We were raised not to lie. So I didn’t tell her a lie, and say I wasn’t going. I said, ‘I hear you.’”
At approximately 11 a.m. students began gathering outside of
’s black public schools holding
homemade signs that read, “It’s time!”
As word spread, students began pouring out of their schools, exiting any
and every way possible, hopping out of windows even. “Ullman High School had over twelve hundred
kids at that time, and eleven hundred of us were over the fence. We were gone!” said Mary Gadson. Birmingham
Teachers responded differently to the mass exodus. Jerome Taylor recalled that his schoolteacher Mrs. Cleopatra Goree looked away as students fled her classroom. “Our teacher Mrs. Goree turned her back as we got up, and we took it from there.” Turning her back to the students was taken as a sign of solidarity. In fact, Goree, and many teachers like her, would have loved to join the students, but she knew she would be fired if she did. Instead she lived vicariously through them; she was happy to see them go. And before she knew it, only two kids remained in her classroom. Miss Woolfolk also turned around and looked at the chalkboard while students marched out the room. “I was teaching American government, what the Constitution guarantees what democracy should be about,” she said later. “And sitting in a segregated school system and going to the back door of restaurant-it made sense for students to take a stand (Jeter-Bennett 243, 255-257).
… some 800 students skipped class, high-schoolers all the way down to first-graders. Sneaking over the fences, they scampered to the
, the march’s
staging ground (Levingston 2). Sixteenth
Once the students arrived at
Baptist, the level of excitement intensified.
Much like a school pep-rally, Bevel and his associates led the throng of
demonstrators in song. “Ain’t gonna let
no body turn me around, turn me around, turn me around. … Walking on to freedom land,” they sang,
along with other cheers and chants.
While movement organizers worked to excite the young demonstrators,
others collected vital statistics – names, ages, parents’ names, and home
addressed – from the children. They also
passed a basket and instructed students to dispose of their weapons. “They asked us if we had any weapons,” James
Stewart recalled. “They passed the
basket around. … Nobody put anything in
it.” Again, the organizers passed the
baskets and on the second go around, “it was full of pocket knives; somebody
had brass knuckles, any little thing that people thought would give an
edge.” Shuttlesworth reminded the
children, “[Your are] freedom fighters, as much as those in the army. But without weapons. … Still you are expected to be as disciplined
as soldiers” (Jeter-Bennett 265-266)
The youngsters then emerged from the church under its brick arch and proceeded down the front steps: girls in dresses and light sweaters; boys in slacks and walking shoes; some wore hats; some had pants held up with suspenders; they were laughing and singing and carrying handmade picket signs reading “Segregation is a sin” and “I’ll die to make this land my home” (Levingston 2).
The students were given signs to carry in the march. Shirley Holmes Sims, a graduate of Parker High School, recalls her sign: "We Shall Overcome." "My mother had told me not to march and said I'd better not go to jail. But this just felt like something we were supposed to do," she said. "I didn't have sense to be afraid. I thought about our lives at the time. You look back and think, my God."
Sims had listened to the speeches on nonviolence but admits that it was difficult to remain nonviolent while being taunted. "Not long after the march, I was boarding a bus to ride home, and a little white boy spat on me," she said. "It was all I could do to keep from slapping him, but I knew that was something I could not do" (Stewart 3).
When police officers approached the initial group of marchers, they informed them of the court injunction prohibiting public demonstrations, and soon began arresting and loading them into paddy wagons for violating the order. “When they put us under arrest, we stepped up into the paddy wagons,” Bernita Roberson said. “I looked back at my daddy. He kind of smiled in support because he knew that somebody from the family was going. And it was his baby child. … I wasn’t afraid. I felt good that I could make a difference. I did not want to be intimidated by whites.”
Although arresting demonstrators had become routine for
policemen, they had not anticipated so many demonstrators. “[The] first group came out of the church
quietly singing, ‘O freedom, O freedom, O freedom over me, and before I be a
slave I’ll be buried in my grave, and go home to my Lord and be free,’” said
Myrna Carter. “They went down Birmingham Sixteenth Street
and immediately WHRRRR, you could hear the motorcycles rev up and start out
after them. Then the police arrested
As the police arrested the first batch of marchers, another group immediately took their place, followed by another group and then another. “While they (the police) were busy doing that, the leaders gave us signs and told us to go out
in the opposite direction.”
Bevel released the groups of marchers in such a way as to give the appearance of one large group. “The police thought the first group was all there was going to be that day. So my group got downtown to Newberry’s. … When the police realized what happened, someone called the paddy wagon. They lined us up and snatched our signs from us.”
The police crammed a dozen or more youth demonstrators into paddy wagons that were meant to hold a maximum of eight people. “Two in each of the four cubicles that they had,” recalled James Stewart. “They crammed three and four of us into one cubicle, and they continued to press the door until they got it shut and locked.”
The city police ran out of paddy wagons within the first hour and began transporting children in school buses. It was quite the sight. Children in school buses waved merrily from the window while being hauled off to jail. “The children were being arrested in wholesale numbers,” said police officer James Parsons. It also surprised policemen to see these school children unafraid. According to demonstrator Gwen Webb, the police “had strange looks to see that we were happy and singing and glad to be arrested” (Jeter-Bennett 275-281).
Washington Booker, … a student at Ullman, was among the youths who were locked up. He had been reluctant about participating in the marches — not because he didn't believe in the cause, but because he knew what could happen. Booker grew up in the projects in a place called
. "It was
nothing for the police to call you over to the car and tell you to stick your
head in the window so they could tell you something. Then they would roll up
the window on you," he said. "Rarely did a day go by when you didn't
hear about a black man or a black boy being abused by police. Loveman
"We knew what the police would do. I was thinking, let's just let the little middle-class kids go down there and march. I had planned on just doing as I did before — standing behind the crowd and chunking bottles and bricks at the police," he said.
But the more he heard about plans for the May Children's March, the more he became caught up with the idea of participating.
"They told us this would be a nonviolent movement, but when I went into the church that day, I was carrying a pocket knife. They passed a collection basket, and we were told to put all of our weapons in the baskets. I dropped my pocket knife in, but I wished I had tucked it under a pew so I could have come back to get it" (Stewart 4).
Bevel called off the day’s demonstrations at 4 p.m.
Later that evening, thousands of men, women, and children gathered at the
to hear from
ACMHR-SCLC movement organizers. … The
meeting began as usual with a series of songs, prayers, and offerings followed
by words from Dr. King. In his remarks
to the crowd the leader of the SCLC said, “I have been inspired and moved
today. I have never seen anything like
it.” Bethel Baptist
Cheers and words of praise rang out as people celebrated the demonstration. He went on to announce that close to one thousand children had participated with more than half arrested on charges of parading without a permit. [Some 75 children had been crammed into cells meant for eight adults] Without delving into next-day details, Dr. King said, “If they think today is the end of this, they will be badly mistaken.” After informing the crowd that comedian-activist Dick Gregory would join them soon, and discussing other movement news, he welcomed Bevel to the pulpit.
Looking out at a room full of supporters he [Bevel] shouted, “There ain’t gonna be no meeting Monday night, because every Negro is gonna be in jail Sunday night!” The church erupted with applause as people began walking up and down the aisles in song and praise. Day one of the Children’s March proved to be a success (Jeter-Bennett 146-147; 282-283).
and the Children’s March.” R&E: Religion & Ethics
Newsweekly. April 26, 2013. Web. https://www.pbs.org/wnet/religionandethics/2013/04/26/april-26-2013-birmingham-and-the-childrens-march/16051/ Birmingham
Campaign.” Stanford: The martin Luther King, Jr. Research and Education
Institute. Web. https://kinginstitute.stanford.edu/encyclopedia/birmingham-campaign Birmingham
Cozzens, Lisa. “
.” Watson.org. Web.
Gilmore, Kim. “The
Children's Crusade of 1963.” Biography.
February 14, 2014. Web. https://www.biography.com/news/black-history-birmingham-childrens-crusade-1963-video Birmingham
“James Bevel: Why the Children Did Lead Us” Community Organizing: Why the Children Did Lead Us.” February 5, 2015. Web. https://breachofpeace.com/blog/?p=583
Jeter-Bennett, Gisell. “’We’re Going Too!’ The Children of the
Civil Rights Movement.” The Birmingham . 2016.
Web. https://etd.ohiolink.edu/!etd.send_file?accession=osu1452263338&disposition=inline Ohio State University
Joiner, Lottie L. “How the Children of
Changed the Civil-Rights Movement.” Daily Beast.
May 2, 2013. Web. https://www.thedailybeast.com/how-the-children-of-birmingham-changed-the-civil-rights-movement Birmingham
Levingston, Steven. “Children have changed
before, braving fire hoses and police dogs for civil rights.” The America Post. March 23, 2018. Web. https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/retropolis/wp/2018/02/20/children-have-changed-america-before-braving-fire-hoses-and-police-dogs-for-civil-rights/?noredirect=on&utm_term=.4e1bfba8a276 Washington
Stewart, Denise. “Children's March 1963: A Defiant Moment.” The Root. May 1, 2013. Web. https://www.theroot.com/childrens-march-1963-a-defiant-moment-1790896253