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The Birmingham Children’s Crusade of 1963

In our continuing coverage of Black History Month, we look back at the Birmingham Children’s Crusade of 1963.

Our Black History coverage continues with a look at the Children’s Crusade of 1963, a pivotal event of the Civil Rights Movement, which opened the eyes of the nation through the courageous activism of its youngest citizens.

“We were told in some of the mass meetings that the day would come when we could really do something about all of these inequities that we were experiencing. And we were calling it D-Day. That was May 2, 1963,” remembers Janice Kelsey. Kelsey was one of thousands of young people who participated in a series of non-violent demonstrations known as the Children’s Crusade in Birmingham, Alabama, during the first week of May 1963. For many African-American children in Birmingham, the Civil Rights Movement was already part of their lives. They had witnessed their parents involvement through mass meetings organized at churches like the 16th Street Baptist Church. While many parents and Civil Rights leaders were cautious about involving young people in the protests, it turned out that the brave actions of these children helped make lasting change in Birmingham at a key turning point in the movement.

Early in 1963, Civil Rights leaders in the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) and other civil rights groups developed a plan to desegregate Birmingham, a city notorious for its discriminatory practices in employment and public life. Segregation persisted throughout the city and blacks were allowed to go to many places like the fairgrounds only on “colored days.” The goal of the plan was to use tactics of non-violent protest to provoke Birmingham civic and business leaders to agree to desegregate. The demonstrations started in April 1963 as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Reverend Ralph Abernathy, and local leader Reverend Fred Shuttlesworth led thousands of African-American protestors in Birmingham. The first phase of the campaign resulted in many arrests, including Dr. King who penned his powerful “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” on April 16th. A circuit court judge had issued an injunction against protest, picketing, demonstrating and boycotting, providing the legal grounds for mass arrests.

As the campaign continued that month, SCLC leader James Bevel started to enact plans for a “Children’s Crusade” that he and other leaders believed might help turn the tide in Birmingham. Thousands of children were trained in the tactics of non-violence. On May 2nd, they left the 16th Street Baptist Church in groups, heading throughout the city to protest segregation peacefully. One of their goals was to talk to the mayor of Birmingham about segregation in their city. They were not met with a peaceful response. On the first day of the protest, hundreds of children were arrested. By the second day, Commissioner of Public Safety Bull O’Connor ordered police to spray the children with powerful water hoses, hit them with batons, and threaten them with police dogs.

Despite this harsh treatment, children continued to volunteer to participate in the demonstrations over the next few days. Footage and photographs of the violent crackdown in Birmingham circulated throughout the nation and the world, causing an outcry. Businesses in downtown Birmingham were feeling the pressure. On May 5th, protestors marched to the city jail where many of the young people were still being held. They sang protest songs and continued their tactics of non-violent demonstration. Finally, local officials had agreed to meet with civil rights leaders and hash out a plan to end the protests. On May 10th, an agreement had been reached. City leaders agreed to desegregate business and to free all who had been jailed during the demonstrations. Weeks later, the Birmingham board of education announced that all students who had been involved in the Children’s Crusade would be expelled. This decision was ultimately overturned by the court of appeals.

The Children’s Crusade marked a significant victory in Birmingham. The city was in the world spotlight, and local officials knew that they could no longer ignore the Civil Rights Movement. Yet the struggle for equality in Birmingham continued. Later that year, in September 1963, four little girls were killed by bombs planted by white supremacists at the 16th St. Baptist Church, and over 20 more were injured. The horrific bombings sent shock waves through the nation. Despite this violent reaction to the movement for equality and justice, everyday people in Birmingham continued their efforts. And thousands of children, some of them as young as 7 or 8 years old, had kept the momentum of the struggle going in its most pivotal hour.