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)

Washington Booker, also a student at Ullman, was among the youths who were locked up. He had been reluctant about participating in the marches — not because he didn’t believe in the cause, but because he knew what could happen. Booker grew up in the projects in a place called Loveman Village. “It was nothing for the police to call you over to the car and tell you to stick your head in the window so they could tell you something. Then they would roll up the window on you,” he said. “Rarely did a day go by when you didn’t hear about a black man or a black boy being abused by police.

“We knew what the police would do. I was thinking, let’s just let the little middle-class kids go down there and march. I had planned on just doing as I did before — standing behind the crowd and chunking bottles and bricks at the police,” he said.

But the more he heard about plans for the May Children’s March, the more he became caught up with the idea of participating.

“They told us this would be a nonviolent movement, but when I went into the church that day, I was carrying a pocket knife. They passed a collection basket, and we were told to put all of our weapons in the baskets. I dropped my pocket knife in, but I wished I had tucked it under a pew so I could have come back to get it.”

Booker, a Marine, community activist and political consultant, was 14 at the time of the Children’s March. While he is proud of their actions in 1963, change, he said, still came at a very slow pace. “The laws changed, but prevailing attitudes changed much slower.”

Brenda Phillips Hong, a graduate of Western Olin High School in West Birmingham’s Ensley community, said the youths felt a sense of urgency in 1963. The walk from her high school to downtown Birmingham and 16th Street Baptist Church was more than five miles, but at the time, the detail was not important, Hong said. “This was something we had to do.”

Her mother had told her not to march, but Hong slipped away to the march organization and training sessions by telling her mother she was going to her older sister’s home. “We were marching and singing all the way,” she said. “We had strong student leaders who helped keep everyone focused.”

The students were given signs to carry in the march. Shirley Holmes Sims, a graduate of Parker High School, recalls her sign: “We Shall Overcome.” “My mother had told me not to march and said I’d better not go to jail. But this just felt like something we were supposed to do,” she said. “I didn’t have sense to be afraid. I thought about our lives at the time. You look back and think, my God.”

Sims had listened to the speeches on nonviolence but admits that it was difficult to remain nonviolent while being taunted. “Not long after the march, I was boarding a bus to ride home, and a little white boy spat on me,” she said. “It was all I could do to keep from slapping him, but I knew that was something I could not do.”

C. Virginia Fields, the former Manhattan borough president in New York City and president and CEO of the National Black Leadership Commission on AIDS, marched as a Birmingham teen in 1963 and found herself in a Birmingham jail at the age of 17. “I didn’t march in May because I had been jailed for marching in April, and my case was still tied up in court,” said Fields, who graduated from Carver High School in January 1963. “I spent six days in jail after participating in the Good Friday march led by Dr. King.

“My mother was a leader in the Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights. We attended Bethel Baptist Church where Rev. [Fred] Shuttlesworth had been our pastor,” she said.

“We were teenagers, and we had already seen so much. We knew this had to change. My church was bombed. My pastor’s home was bombed. We wanted a better life,” she said. “This started me on a path and believing that using my voice, I can make a difference.”

Denise Stewart grew up in Birmingham, Ala., in the 1960s and is a freelance journalist based in Alabama.