In honor of Martin Luther King Day, which was celebrated on January 16, I am posting an excerpt from the Peace Heroes program that tells the story of the Children’s March, which was one of the more unusual campaigns led by Dr. King in his fight for justice and freedom for all.
In the early 1960s, Birmingham, Alabama was known as the most segregated city in the South. Even though Federal Law had rendered Jim Crow illegal, Birmingham found ways to continue practicing segregation. But when civil rights activists challenged the city’s segregation laws, violence against blacks became a matter of course. Between 1957 and 1963, 18 bombs were set off against black targets, earning the city the nickname of “Bombingham.” And though some of the bombs were lethal, no one was ever arrested in connection with them, or for any of the other acts of violence committed against black people during those years.
As the Civil Rights Movement gained momentum across the South, the black community in Birmingham decided that it, too, had had enough; the people were simply “tired of the assaults on their dignity and their freedom, and ready to demand justice” (Hunter-Gault). In April 1963, leaders of the Civil Rights Movement in Birmingham decided to devise a plan to desegregate the city, calling it the Birmingham Campaign. Martin Luther King agreed to lead the first phase of the campaign, for which he was arrested on 12 April, spending a week in prison. After King’s arrest, the campaign started to lose some of its momentum. Something was needed to jumpstart the campaign and boost the people’s morale. It was James Bevel, another leader in the Civil Rights Movement, who came up with the daring plan to fill the jails with children, rather than adults. Surely the sight of children being arrested for protesting against segregation would win the heart of the nation over to their side!
At first, King was hesitant, saying that jail is no place for children. But it was the children themselves who helped change his mind: King saw how high school students were willingly participating in classes that taught them how to fight against the system nonviolently, and how elementary school children were begging their parents to take part in the various nonviolent marches. He realized that young people were longing to be involved in the fight for freedom and justice. They also wanted to be part of the campaign – to be part of the change that was, they hoped, inevitable. Unlike the adults, who risked losing their jobs if they participated in any protests or marches, children had very little to lose by being arrested. Instead, the children’s arrest would be publicized all over the media, showing just how racist and segregated Birmingham really was. The children were the prefect way for the Civil Rights Movement to get this important message across to the rest of the country – and the world.
The first Children’s March was set for 2 May, 1963. But not all parents were ready to let their kids march – after all, what parent wants to see his or her child thrown into jail? But many of the children were determined, regardless of their parents’ hesitations. One little boy said 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” (“1963 January-June”). The children in Birmingham understood that the way things were was unacceptable – that something needed to change. They saw how white children had privileges that they didn’t have, and saw how their parents were looked down on as lesser people than the whites. They felt the sting of racism – its inherent humiliation – and decided it was time to take a stand. It was a remarkable expression of their courage, and many parents eventually decided to let the children have their say, also, in the fight against racism.
On the morning of 2 May, hundreds of children gathered at one of the churches in town and started marching from there towards the city’s shopping district. King and other leaders told the children that they were to do nothing but march. They were not to taunt the police in any way, or use violence. In fact, they were instructed to begin their marches in total silence – until they were threatened by the police. When that happened, King told them to sing: On the way to the prison house – sing! Inside the prison cells – sing! King wanted the world to hear the children’s voices being raised not in anger, but in song. The song they were given to sing was this:
Ain’t a-scared of your jail, ’cause I want my freedom,
I want my freedom,
I want my freedom.
Ain’t a-scared of your jail, ’cause I want my freedom,
I want my freedom now!
On the first day of the march, about one thousand children were arrested and sent to jail. When another one thousand children marched down the streets of Birmingham on the second day, the chief police officer told the policemen to use violence against them: To spray the children down with fire hoses and attack them with dogs. He even told his men to put the water pressure so high that it would knock all the children off their feet. But “the young protesters [sat] down on the pavement and hunch[ed] their backs against the torrent” while they sang songs of freedom (“1963”).
The police were in a quandary: They had filled all the jails on the first day of the Children’s March, meaning there simply was not enough room for all the children they kept on arresting. The police needed the children to stop marching, because there was nowhere else to put them. But the children continued to fill the streets, day after day, with no sign of letting up. King continued to encourage the parents to allow their children to go, saying: “Don’t worry about your children; they are going to be alright. Don’t hold them back if they want to go to jail, for they are not only doing a job for themselves, but for all of America and for all of mankind” (qtd. in “Children’s Crusade”).
Amazingly, after a week of marches, nearly three thousand children had been arrested. But since filling the jails was exactly what King and the other leaders had set out to do, they were quite pleased; they knew that their tactic was working. The police had reacted so violently to the children’s marching that when “images of children being blasted by high-pressure fire hoses, clubbed by police officers, and attacked by police dogs appeared on television and in newspapers” they “triggered outrage throughout the world” (“Children’s Crusade”). But the Children’s March caught more than just the world’s attention; it also caught the attention of the President of the United States. After a week of protests, President John F. Kennedy decided enough is enough and intervened on behalf of the children. The children were all released, and on 10 May, eight days after the first Children’s March took place, the city of Birmingham capitulated and agreed to desegregate all public facilities, among other things. It was a massive victory for the children of Birmingham and for the Civil Rights Movement, led by King.
“1963 January – June.” Civil Rights Movement Veterans. Tougaloo College, n.d. Web. 20 May 2014.
“Children’s Crusade.” King Encyclopedia. Stanford University, n.d. Web. 20 May 2014.
Gilmore, Kim. “The Birmingham Children’s Crusade of 1963.” Bio. Bio, 14 Feb. 2014. Web. 20 May 2014.
Hunter-Gault, Charlayne. “Fifty Years After the Birmingham Children’s Crusade.” The New Yorker. The New Yorker, 2 May 2013. Web. 20 May 2014.
Levinson, Cynthia. We’ve Got a Job. Atlanta: Peachtree Publishers, 2012. Print.