Ok…I was talking to a good friend recently (whassup Thrill?!) and we were talking about our youth today. The origin of this convo was motivated by the recent Freedom School training that my friend just recently came from. He had a lot to tell me (and still does), but one thing that stood out to me the most was about The Children’s Crusade that took place during the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s. Now, mind you, I’ve never heard about this crusade in my history classes. Not even my BLACK history classes. When he told me about it, I was just blown away. So, I did some research to find more info for you all. The following information is from the Veterans of the Civil Rights Movement:
The Children’s Crusade
With the injunction trial over, King and Shuttlesworth try to re-ignite the faltering movement with a call for a mass march on Thursday, May 2nd — a march patterned on the successful march in Nashville three years earlier. But Birmingham is no Nashville, there was no injunction in Nashville, and no Bull Connor either. And in Nashville, most of the marchers had been students from four large Black colleges, but in Birmingham there is only tiny Miles College. The debate over allowing children to confront Connor’s cops and dogs and jails roils the movement. But the young freedom fighters are done arguing — they are ready to march and no one is going to stop them. Finally, Dr. King agrees, children who are old enough to join a church are old enough to make witness for justice. In the tradition of the Black Baptist church, a child in elementary school can join the church by accepting the Christian faith.
A passion for freedom sweeps through Parker High and the other Black schools of Birmingham and Bessemer, an emotional firestorm ignited by SCLC’s young field workers, led by class presidents and prom queens, cheerleaders and football players like big James Orange. A fire stoked and spread by “Tall Paul” White and other DJs at the Black radio stations. Thursday, May 2nd, is “D-Day” as students ditch class to march for justice. In disciplined groups of 50, children singing freedom songs march out of 16th Street Baptist church two-by-two. When each group is arrested, another takes its place. There are not enough cops to contain them, and police reinforcements are hurriedly summoned. By the end of the day almost 1,000 kids have been jailed.
That evening, almost 2,000 adults over-flow the nightly mass meeting at Bethel Baptist. As mandated by a court ruling, a pair of white police detectives are able to attend all mass meetings so that they can radio reports back to Connor. They usually sit in the front row, and Movement speakers often address them directly as representatives of the repressive power structure. By confronting them, condemning their actions, and ridiculing them with humor, the speakers use their presence to erode the deeply ingrained traditions of fear and subservience that have held sway for so long.
In family after family, worried parents wrestle with their justifiable fears and the determination of their sons and daughters. Says one boy to his father:
“Daddy, 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. I’m not doing this only because I want to be free. I’m also doing it because I want freedom for you and Mama, and I want it to come before you die.“
The next day, Friday May 3rd, a thousand more students cut class to assemble at 16th Street church. With the jails already filled to capacity, and the number of marchers growing, Connor tries to suppress the movement with violence. Instead of arresting the first group of marchers he orders his fire department to disperse them with firehoses. But the students hold their ground, singing “Freedom” to the tune of the ancient hymn “Amen.” Connor orders the water pressure increased to knock them off their feet and wash them away. Still singing, the young protesters sit down on the pavement and hunch their backs against the torrent.
Connor brings up “monitor guns,” high-pressure nozzles mounted on tripods and fed by two hoses, used to fight the worst fires and capable of knocking bricks out of a wall at 100 feet. The students are washed tumbling down the street like leaves in a flood. Outraged, the hundreds of Black on-lookers in Kelly Ingram park — including many parents — throw rocks and bottles at the cops and firemen. Meanwhile, more groups of marchers are taking different routes out of 16th Street church, dodging around the firehoses and heading for downtown. The cops scramble to block them, arresting those who reach City Hall or the downtown stores. There is no room in the jails and the overflow prisoners are incarcerated at the county fairgrounds.
To contain and intimidate the demonstrators and the angry crowd, Connor brings up his K9 Corps of eight vicious attack dogs. As John Lewis recalled it later, “We didn’t fully comprehend at first what was happening. We were witnessing police violence and brutality Birmingham-style: unfortunately for Bull Connor, so was the rest of the world.” Television that night, and newspapers world-wide the next morning, show images of young children marching up to snarling police dogs, cops clubbing women to the ground, and high-pressure hoses sweeping young bodies into the street.
Saturday, May 4th, the student marches continue. Again Connor uses his monitor water-cannons to knock down and contain the young protesters, and again they use guerrilla tactics to evade the police cordon to reach City Hall and the downtown shopping district. Connor knows he cannot use fire hoses or attack dogs against Blacks intermingled with white shoppers, so he has to arrest those who reach the commercial area, straining the capacity of his improvised prisons at the fair grounds. Again angry adults in Kelly Ingram park retaliate by hurling rocks and bottles at the cops and firemen until Bevel and other SCLC workers convince them that their spontaneous violence is undercutting the Movement’s effectiveness.
With the downtown stores closed for Sunday, the 5th is to be a day of pause, prayer, and nonviolent training for the next wave. Reinforcements arrive — SNCC Executive Director James Forman just bailed out from being arrested on the William Moore march, SNCC leader Ella Baker, comedian Dick Gregory, and singers Guy & Candy Carawan and Joan Baez.
But when the cops bust the Carawans, dragging them off the steps of New Pilgrim church (site of that day’s mass meeting), Bevel calls on the congregation — mostly adults in their Sunday best — to march on the jail in protest. Led by ACMHR stalwart Rev. Charles Billups, and inspired by the courage of the children over the previous days, they catch Connor by surprise and make it five blocks through the Black community before the police and firemen manage to block them just short of the jail. By now the march line has grown to almost 2,000 people, who kneel two-by-two in prayer while Billups stands tall, shouting to Connor: “Turn on your water! Turn loose your dogs! We’ll stand here ’til we die!” Connor orders that the firehoses be turned on the line of marchers who are kneeling in prayer, but the firemen hesitate. Wyatt Walker averts a clash by convincing Connor to let the marchers hold a prayer service in a nearby park. To the marchers, it is a surprising taste of victory.
Stung by growing public pressure, and moved by the images coming out of Birmingham, Kennedy sends Justice Department official Burke Marshall to calm the waters. Marshall tries without success to convince King that the demonstrations should be halted. And he finds few whites of influence willing to sit down and negotiate with Blacks.
On Monday, the 6th, under pressure from a white power structure desperate to avoid new images of savage brutality, Connor agrees to simply arrest anyone who tries to march rather than trying to beat them into submission with clubs, dogs, and firehoses. Led by Dick Gregory, the first group is arrested as they leave 16th Street church, and hour after hour, group after group are taken off to jail — almost 1,000 by day’s end (more than 2,600 since D-Day). The jails are full, the improvised fairground prison is full, and many prisoners are now held in an open-air stockade without shelter from the rain. But the downtown shopping district is deserted, the stores empty as Blacks continue to boycott and white shoppers avoid the turmoil of demonstrators and massive police operations. And at the huge mass meeting that night, spread across four different churches, more children — and an increasing number of adults — step forward to march the next day.
On Tuesday the 7th, the Movement escalates its boycott tactics. While Walker and Bevel hold Connor’s attention by making themselves visible at 16th Street church apparently organizing more marches, 600 students led by Dorothy Cotton, Isaac Reynolds, Jim Forman, and others sneak downtown in small guerrilla groups. At H-Hour they grab signs hidden in parked cars and set up surprise picket lines all over the main shopping district. As the cops race towards downtown from Kelly Ingram park with sirens wailing, hundreds of young protesters dash out of the church, evade the few remaining cops, and stream downtown to join the others.
Lines of students, now joined by hundreds of adults, weave in and out of stores, dancing to the rhythmic beat of freedom songs. Within the hour, thousands of protesters are picketing, sitting-in, blocking streets, and taunting the cops. The entire central district is gripped by nonviolent pandemonium. The News reports the next day:
Sirens Wail, Horns Blow, Negroes Sing. The cops are stumped, the jails and holding pens are full and the budget exhausted, they cannot make more mass arrests, but they cannot shoot up Birmingham’s business heart with tear gas, or risk damaging stores and offices with high-pressure fire hoses aimed at quicksilver demonstrators.
Back at Kelly Ingram park, the fire hoses are turned on new waves of nonviolent marchers coming out of the church. A high-pressure blast from a monitor gun is aimed at Shuttlesworth, smashing him against the brick wall of the church until he collapses. As he is rushed to hospital by ambulance, Bull Connor tells a reporter: “I wish he’d been carried away in a hearse.“
Food for Thought: What is our youth fighting for today?