Birmingham’s Children’s Crusade

MARIAN WRIGHT EDELMAN | 5/21/2018, 3:46 p.m.
Daddy,” the boy said, “I don’t want to disobey you, but I have made my pledge. If you try to ...

Children’s Defense Fund

“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. If you think I deserve to be punished for that, I’ll just have to take the punishment. 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 that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. overheard talking to his father was one of hundreds of Birmingham children and youths who 55 years ago this month decided to stand up for their and all our freedom. They stood up to fire hoses, police dogs, imprionment, and finally broke the back of Jim Crow in that city known as “Bombingham.”

Last week, Jack and Jill of America Inc. invited the Children’s Defense Fund to come together with them and over 2,000 children, youths and families from across the country in Birmingham’s Civil Rights District to commemorate that inspiring and courageous act of resistance and peaceful protest that played a pivotal role in changing American history. The anniversary celebration of the Birmingham Children’s Crusade was designed to remember, honor and follow the example of those front-line child soldiers and 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 Birmingham. In April 1963, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, together with the Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights and its great and fearless leader Reverend Fred Shuttlesworth, had started a direct action desegregation campaign in the city. There were mass meetings, lunch counter sit-ins, nonviolent marches, and boycotts of segregated stores during the busy Easter shopping season. King became one of several hundred people arrested in the first weeks of the campaign when he was jailed for violating an anti-protest injunction April 12, Good Friday, and four days later wrote his Letter from a Birmingham Jail. As the days went on with little response from city leaders a new idea was raised: including more children and youths.

Children didn’t face some of the risks adults might, including losing breadwinning jobs, and college students had already proven to be extremely effective activists in cities across the South in desegregating lunch counters. But once it became clear that many of the children volunteering for meetings and training sessions in Birmingham were high school students and some even younger, concern was raised about whether allowing and encouraging them to protest was too dangerous.

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 people were demonstrating daily and going to jail in numbers, but we were still beating our heads against the brick wall of the city officials’ stubborn resolve to maintain the status quo. 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.”