April was a cruel month for black people in Birmingham, Ala., in 1963. So was May, and the months that followed, culminating in the explosion of a bomb in a church that September that killed four girls. Fifty years ago last week, on May 2, 1963, teenagers and children, some as young as six, marched in Birmingham to protest segregation. Many were arrested for parading without a permit, but the marchers came back the next day. They were viciously knocked down in the streets by torrents of water from fire hoses wielded by white policemen, were hit with batons or set upon by police dogs. Martin Luther King Jr., who had been arrested in the city on April 12th — he was held for a week, during which he wrote his Letter from Birmingham Jail — referred to them as “the disinherited children of God.” The marches became known as the Children’s Crusade.
Memories of that tumultuous time came back this past weekend, during a three-day symposium marking the 50th anniversary of the Birmingham campaign sponsored by the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute. Birmingham, 1963, was known as Bombingham: there had been some 50 dynamite attacks on black homes since the end of the Second World War. Birmingham had another label: the most segregated city in the South. Black people could spend their money in downtown stores but were not being hired or served.
One of the Children’s Crusaders was Janice Wesley Kelsey, who was in the 11th grade when she was arrested along with hundreds of other students. She spent four days in jail.
“It wasn’t so bad,” she told me. “There was a cold, concrete floor and an iron bed. That was unpleasant. But I had friends there, and I was fighting for a cause.”
Growing up, she said, “I didn’t know that the white students had new books and we did not. Or the white schools had new footballs and we did not.”
Kelsey recalled attending workshops that James Bevel, of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, held for hundreds of students in schools and churches, pointing out inequalities, teaching about protests against injustice, and about non-violence as the means to a just end.
“We didn’t hate white people,” she said softly. “We didn’t even know any. We hated the system. That’s what we were protesting about.”
Throughout the three days of the seminar, young students brought to the symposium learned about the four girls who were blown apart by sixteen sticks of dynamite in the church where they were attending Sunday school. They were Addie Mae Collins, Carole Robertson, and Cynthia Wesley, all 14 years old, and Denise McNair, who was only 11. The parents of one of the children were able to identify their daughter in the morgue only by her foot and a ring on one of her fingers.
But the participants also recalled how, by the time April, 1963, rolled around, many blacks in Birmingham had had enough. They were tired of the assaults on their dignity and their freedom, and ready to demand justice. The Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth and others invited in organizations like the S.C.L.C., then led by King, and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, which was known for providing the “shock troops” of the movement.
And it was here that, on Good Friday, Reverend King shed his preacher suit for a pair of blue jeans and a cotton shirt and led a march aimed at persuading blacks not to shop in downtown stores as they normally would be, buying their outfits for churchgoing on Easter Sunday. He and some 105 demonstrators were roughly handled and thrown into paddy wagons and, later, cells in the Birmingham jail.
Dr. Eric Motley, the vice president of the Aspen Institute, remembered that, as he was about to go off to college, his grandfather sat him down and made him read aloud the letter that King wrote from his cell. He said it formed the moral compass that has guided him through life.
Motley talked about how King wrote the letter on bits of newspaper edges smuggled into him by a courageous black warden whose main job was cleaning up slop in the cells, and later from pages of a legal pad smuggled in by King’s lawyers. King wrote it after hearing about a letter that white clergy had published in the newspaper, criticizing “outsiders” for meddling in Birmingham’s affairs and for taking a route other than the courts for righting what the letter’s authors did, at least, acknowledge were wrongs in Birmingham.
King pushed back, noting that he’d been invited:
But more basically, I am in Birmingham because injustice is here. Just as the prophets of the eighth century B.C. left their villages and carried their “thus saith the Lord” far beyond the boundaries of their home towns: and just as the Apostle Paul left his village of Tarsus and carried the gospel of Jesus Christ to the far corners of the Greco-Roman world, so am I compelled to carry the gospel of freedom far beyond my own hometown. Like Paul, I must constantly respond to the Macedonian call for aid.
As those assembled discussed another phrase King made famous — “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice” — they also remembered the phrase “the struggle continues,” citing the effort on the part of Republicans to suppress minority turnout with voter-I.D. requirements.
Kristin Fuller, a freshman at the University of West Alabama, was at the symposium with her twin sister, Krista. She told me, “As the youth we have to be aware of what’s going on, and own up to it in order to help change it.” But she was also conscious of how integration was an unfulfilled project in the city: “A lot of black people go to white schools, but no white people go to black schools. When we graduated from Ramsay High School, there was just one white student.” Birmingham now has another nickname—Black City, owing to the mass exodus of whites whose flight coincided with the emergence of black political leaders after the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
And it was not lost on those assembled that they talked about attacks on children 50 years ago only a short while after 20 children were among the 26 murdered in Newtown, Conn.; after Hadiya Pendleton, a 15-year-old girl who sang in a choir for President Obama’s inauguration, was killed in a Chicago park, in a wave of gun violence in that city; and an eight-year-old boy was among three killed in the Boston Marathon bombing.
Meanwhile, the four young girls who died in Birmingham are being considered posthumously for a Congressional Medal of Honor. In that story, too, there are wounds that are less visible and harder to reconcile. Sarah Collins Rudolph, the surviving sister of Addie Mae Collins, was in the church bathroom when the dynamite exploded, and lost an eye in the blast. She told NPR earlier this year that she is ambivalent about the commemorations, and she is seeking financial compensation for the extensive medical expenses she incurred after the attack. After suffering the consequences for the past five decades, she said, even after all these years, nobody remembers her.
Charlayne Hunter-Gault was formerly the Africa bureau chief for CNN, and is a longtime seasonal resident of Oak Bluffs. Her book To The Mountaintop: My Journey Through the Civil Rights Movement, for readers ninth grade and up, was published in 2012. This piece was reprinted with permission from The New Yorker, http://nyr. kr/121e63A.