This first week in May marks 50 years from the Civil Rights Movement and in particular the Children’s Crusade of Birmingham, Alabama. This was a particular time of tireless work for Martin Luther King, Jr. and other leaders. The task was the vision of justice for African-Americans and the non-violent fight against hatred.
It was late spring of 1963. Support for civil rights was waning, where protests and even Martin Luther King, Jr.’s imprisonment didn’t bring the needed attention to their plight. The community’s children were invited to take part, to become advocates for their own freedom and dignity.
In April, peaceful protesters were attacked with high-pressure hoses and vicious police dogs. Police Commissioner “Bull” Conner was notoriously racist, and his desire for power and resulting behaviors began to draw attention to the injustice in the city.
But in May, a controversial action was taken that involved children. Dr. King felt that if children were old enough to join their church (in the tradition, elementary school aged children could), then they were old enough to make a witness for justice.
One young boy spoke with clarity and conviction, 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.
Children left their schools and marched in the streets, holding hands, singing hymns of freedom. The children were met with violence. Bull Conner instructed that the fire hoses be turned up to high power. It knocked children down; it blew them into walls. The children were incarcerated, and after the jail cells were full, some of them even were kept in the stockyards as if they were animals.
Media began to descend on the city of Birmingham, and President Kennedy’s authority brought needed attention and movement to encourage the Birmingham power structure to negotiations that eventually led to the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
Many leaders publically criticized King for putting children in harms way. Today, we might think that King’s choice was a radical one. Our children are our most precious gifts. But from this privileged place, I can only imagine their struggle. From this place of freedom, I can only begin to understand their living. I have an acquaintance in Hayward who was one of those children attacked in 1963. She has dedicated much of her life to continuing justice work. What responsibilities do we have to change the world? What are we willing to risk? What do we dream?
In faith, Katie