“Daddy,” the boy said, “I don't want to disobey you, but I have made my pledge. If you try to keep me home, I will sneak off … For, you see, I'm not doing this only because I want to be free. I'm doing it also because I want freedom for you and Mama, and I want it to come before you die.”
This teenage boy overheard talking to his father by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was one of the hundreds of Birmingham youths who, 52 years ago this month, decided to stand up for freedom. They stood up to fire hoses and police dogs, went to jail by the hundreds and finally broke the back of Jim Crow in that city known as “Bombingham.”
On this 50th anniversary of the Birmingham Children’s Crusade, it is a time to remember, honor and follow the example of the children who were transforming catalysts in America’s greatest moral movement of the 20th century—the movement for civil rights and equal justice.
The Children’s Crusade happened at a critical time in the civil rights struggle. In April 1963, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, together with the Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights and its fearless leader, Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth, started a direct-action desegregation campaign in the city. There were mass meetings, lunch counter sit-ins, nonviolent marches and boycotts of Birmingham’s segregated stores during the busy Easter shopping season. Dr. King, and several hundred other people, were arrested for violating an anti-protest injunction on April 12, Good Friday. Four days later, he wrote his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.” As the days went on with little response from city leaders, a decision was made to include more young people.
Children wouldn’t lose their jobs and college students—I had the privilege to be among them—had proven to be effective activists in cities across the South in desegregating lunch counters. Some were concerned about encouraging children to protest.
Dr. King later described the decision this way: “Even though we realized that involving teenagers and high-school students would bring down upon us a heavy fire of criticism, we felt that we needed this dramatic new dimension…Our fight, if won, would benefit people of all ages. But most of all, we were inspired with a desire to give to our young a true sense of their own stake in freedom and justice.
We believed they would have the courage to respond to our call.”
Protests continued in Birmingham with children leading the way. Jails overflowed so much that some children prisoners were held at the city’s fairground and others in an open-air stockade. On May 8, a temporary truce was called and on May 10, an agreement was reached that released the jailed children and others on bond and paved the way for desegregation of Birmingham’s public facilities.
Hateful White segregationists did not give in quietly. Within hours, the Gaston Motel, where Dr. King and other SCLC leaders stayed, and the home of Rev. A.D. King, Dr. King’s brother, were firebombed. Four months later, a bomb was placed under the steps of the 16th Street Baptist Church that exploded as children in the basement prepared to lead Youth Sunday services. Four girls were killed and more than 20 other people were injured.
When one interviewer asked Dr. King how he felt after that bombing, he first described his despair at thinking that if men could be that bestial, maybe there really was no hope. But, he told the interviewer: “I never will forget a moment in Birmingham when a White policeman accosted a little Negro girl, 7 or 8 years old, who was walking in a demonstration with her mother. ‘What do you want?’ the policeman asked her gruffly, and the little girl looked him straight in the eye and answered, ‘Fee-dom.’ She couldn’t even pronounce it, but she knew. It was beautiful! Many times when I have been in sorely trying situations, the memory of that little one has come into my mind, and has buoyed me.”
The same example that buoyed Dr. King should inspire us today. As the Children’s Defense Fund makes final preparations for our 2013 Freedom Schools summer enrichment program that will serve nearly 12,000 children in 96 cities, our theme for this year is “Children and Youth as Movement Builders and Change Agents.”
We seek to honor, on this 50th anniversary of the Birmingham Children’s Crusade, the role of children and youth in desegregating public schools and public accommodations.
I hope they will inspire us to remind youth today that they are not citizens in waiting. They, too, can be transforming agents for change.
Marian Wright Edelman is president of the Children's Defense Fund. For more information go to www.childrensdefense.org.