(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.
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.