Children’s March 1963: A Defiant Moment

Fifty years later, participants recall standing up to Bull Connor in the fight for civil rights.

1963 Children's March (Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)
1963 Children's March (Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)

(The Root) — Defying your parents’ orders not to march in Birmingham, Ala., in the 1960s could have meant a whipping for teens. Defying the police commissioner’s order not to march protesting segregation could have meant attacks by dogs, blasts from fire hoses and a lockup in jail.

Fifty years ago in the spring of 1963, thousands of youths in Birmingham did just that — often disobeying their parents because they wanted to join a unified call to end segregation. A re-enactment of the Children’s March (also known as the Children’s Crusade) is set for Thursday, May 2, in downtown Birmingham.

In 1963, pictures from Birmingham were shown around the world of children blasted by fire hoses. Of children attacked by dogs. Of children singing, “We Shall Overcome.”

Freeman Hrabowski, president of the University of Maryland at Baltimore County, was 12 and a freshman at Ullman High School when he left school to march downtown. Before the day was over, he had come face-to-face with the city’s iconic, racist public-safety commissioner, Eugene “Bull” Connor, and found himself locked up in a juvenile detention facility.

“I guess you could say I learned an early lesson from a Birmingham jail,” said Hrabowski, named last year by Time magazine as one of its “100 Most Influential People in the World. “If I had to do it all over again, I would do the very same thing.”

While he was locked up, Hrabowski remembers Martin Luther King Jr. coming to the juvenile facility and speaking words of encouragement outside. “He said, ‘What you do this day will impact children who have not been born,’ ” Hrabowski said. Days earlier, Hrabowski had heard King speak at his church, Sixth Avenue Baptist. “He told us that by marching in the movement, children would help end segregation and improve education. That caught my attention. We had great teachers at the time, but we were told that our resources were not the same as whites. I wanted to see change.”

When Hrabowski told his parents he wanted to march, they told him, “Absolutely not.”

“Then I did something you just didn’t do back then. I asked them why they would take me to hear this man [King] talk about marching for better education, but tell me I couldn’t do it,” he said. “My dad said, ‘Boy, go to your room.’ “

Hrabowski insisted on marching, and when the crowds left Ullman that May day, he left, too. They marched from south of town about two miles to 16th Street Baptist Church. “As a child, I was a fat nerd, but I loved school. I wanted to be part of anything that would bring better education,” he said.

The youths assembled in the church and received their instructions for the day. When they made it to the Birmingham City Hall, they would kneel and pray. That’s where Hrabowski encountered the public-safety commissioner whose image was synonymous with segregation — Bull Connor.

“My knees were shaking. He looked at me and said, ‘Little nigra, what do you want?’ I said, ‘We want to kneel and pray,’ ” Hrabowski said. Not long after that, he and hundreds of others were hauled away and locked up.