Thursday, May 3, 2012

"We've Got a Job": the story of the children's march in Birmingham, 1963

“Ten or 15 years from now, we will look back on this and say, ‘How stupid can you be?’ (a police captain, Birmingham, Alabama, 1963)

“Kids these days are so protected, it’s hard for them to imagine their mothers saying, as nine-year-old Audrey Henderson’s mother did, ‘You want to go to jail? OK',” said Cynthia Levinson, author of the new children’s photo-essay book We’ve Got a Job: The 1963 Birmingham Children’s March (Peachtree Publishers). 
School children today learn epic moments of the civil rights movement: Dr. King on the Mall, Rosa Parks on the bus. We've Got a Job reveals the part school children played in the protests held in Birmingham, Alabama from May 2 through May 11, 1963. African-American parents of Birmingham let their children, some as young as nine years old, go out into the streets in May 1963 to face police dogs, fire hoses and Police Chief Bull Connor patrolling the city streets in an actual tank. The goal: get arrested, go to jail, and stay there.
Levinson, a former history teacher, spent four years researching and writing about this little-known chapter of history. Over nine days nearly 2,500 Birmingham children were jailed, and the action ultimately resulted in Birmingham’s rescinding some of its own segregation laws.
The book’s focus is on Birmingham in 1963, and the stories of four young black protagonists who recounted their experience to Levinson as adults, but she widens her lens to include the Kennedy administration’s response, increasing national media coverage and, briefly, the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
At nine, Audrey Hendricks was the youngest of nearly 4000 black children who marched, protested, and sang their way to jail, and she had the support of her church, teachers, and middle-class parents. Washington Booker lived in poverty in the projects; for him the police were the ultimate terror. Arnetta Streeter went to young activists training to prepare for what was a very uncertain and frightening experience.
James Stewart was a 16-year-old middle-class Birmingham doctor’s son in 1963. He chose not to participate in sit-ins, but  he thought marching was right.  Now retired, Stewart lives in Roswell, Georgia with his wife Judy, and has spent the last two months occasionally touring with Levinson explaining what he did and why he did it.
As the campaign of protests escalated in Birmingham in the spring of 1963, Stewart recalled, “African-Americans were told they should be at work every day, no excuses. If they did not show up for work, they would be fired. So the adults were eliminated from openly marching. But the children had been going to the meetings. We were getting excited about it.”
On the morning of May 2, 1963, as a pre-arranged code that the march was on, the disc jockey at the local black radio station announced, “Kids, there’s gonna be a party at the park. Bring your toothbrushes because lunch will be served.”
They heard Martin Luther King Jr. speak, as well as the Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth, founder of the Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights, and the Rev. James Bevel, less well known than others, but with whom Stewart connected the most.
“We had experienced the same things the adults had experienced,” Stewart said, “and we were tired of it. We said we are available, we want to do this. We want to march.”
So on May 2, 1963, he skipped school and joined about 1,000 other black students to march in downtown Birmingham. Police met them, herded them into paddy wagons and hauled them off to jail. The next day hundreds more marched, and this time the police met them with snarling dogs and high-pressure fire hoses. But the kids kept coming.
“It was terrifying. It really was,” said Stewart. “In moments like that, you do what has to be done. You press forward and you may be a little fearful, but there’s also that adrenaline that says you’re here and you’re going to do this. We have nowhere to go but forward. We need to press forward.”
Stewart spent four days in jail with about 400 men and boys sharing five toilets. It was so packed that they had to take turns sleeping and standing. He survived mainly on Three Musketeers candy bars.
King was initially opposed to using children in a political protest, Levinson recalled. “He was frightened, and understandably. But he came to support it, very quickly.”
On May 3, the second day of what became known as the Children’s Crusade, King reassured parents at a local Baptist church: “Don’t worry about your children; they are going to be all right. 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.”

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