At 13 years of age, I was woefully uninformed about the plight of my fellow citizens of color. And I was especially ignorant of how worse things were in the South. Now 60 years later, and still in my lifetime, I am finally becoming aware of how bad things were, aware of the progress to date and aware of the long trajectory of progress yet to come. As I have gone through this introspective journey, I realize that a review of the history provides a retrospective analysis of what happened and, with appropriate reflection, can provide a prospective path forward.
But the latter only happens when this journey is approached with sincerity, humility, good faith, and the willingness to embrace the truth. A look back at Birmingham, AL in 1963 has opened my eyes and spurred a renewed interest in children’s advocacy. A serious review of the Birmingham Children’s Crusade speaks to the involvement of children and the wanton disregard for their well-being by so many in a position of authority.
Let’s set the stage –
- Back in the 1955, Rosa Parks was the catalyst for the Montgomery, AL bus boycott.1
- In 1962, elected Alabama Governor George Wallace declared in his inaugural address his condemnation of the civil rights movement – “I draw the line in the dust and toss the gauntlet before the feet of tyranny [his description of the movement]”; he further vowed to maintain “segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever.”2
- The Birmingham commissioner of public safety, “Bull” Conner, also declared his support for white supremacy.
- Civil rights leaders gathered in Birmingham in April 1963 for a series of non-violent marches, boycotts and sit-ins to protest segregation and seek better economic well-being for blacks. Birmingham was chosen because of its reputation as the most segregated city in the country.
- Peaceful protests were met with a show of force (police batons, police dogs and firehoses).
- Martin Luther King, Jr. was arrested on Good Friday April 1963 and jailed for 8 days. His Letter from Birmingham Jail has subsequently been recognized as an eloquent and passionate statement of the reasons for continued civil disobedience.3,4 Select quotes include
- “I am in Birmingham because injustice is here.”
- “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”
- “Too long has our beloved Southland been bogged down in the tragic attempt to live in monologue rather than dialogue.”
- “We have waited for more than three hundred and forty years for our God-given and constitutional rights.”
- “Any law that uplifts human personality is just. Any law that degrades human personality is unjust.”
- And finally, to respond to those in the Birmingham government and clergy who said that the protests were extremist – “So the question is not whether we will be extremist, but what kind of extremists we will be. Will we be extremists for hate, or will we be extremists for love? Will be extremists for the preservation of injustice, or will we be extremists for the cause of justice.”
- After unsuccessful attempts at legal redress by Constance Baker Motley (dubbed the “Civil Rights Queen” in recognition of her legal expertise and work in civil rights litigation) and waning involvement in the protests, the organizers thought about recruiting children. Thousands of students skipped school to participate.2
- But there was concern. Would the organizers be putting children at risk when confronted by law enforcement? Certainly, peaceful young activists would not be attacked. Initially, they were not attacked but hundreds were arrested and some jailed.
- Children’s marches continued in the days ahead and subsequently the police turned the hoses, dogs and clubs on the children. Yes, state-sponsored violence was being used against children and far too many people were not appalled.
- The children were suspended from school, and their due process rights were revoked by the school. Constance Baker Motley was able to successful argue (after appeal) for the reinstatement of the children without any lingering punishment.
As a pediatric advocate, I find my journey into history helps elucidate ways to fight for children. One might argue that society values children and would do nothing to harm them. But an accurate rendering will dispute that. So, if we are going to protect and promote the well-being of our children, we need to accept our wrongs in the past to be sure that past mistakes are not repeated. Then, we need to accept that our efforts to protect them need to be redoubled. We have to study and agree with the facts from the past to guide our actions going forward.
Some folks argue that such a process teaches hate. I firmly disagree. To ignore history is to repeat it. To ignore our history (past indiscretions and immoral behavior) is to be insincere, to exhibit a lack of humility, to act in bad faith and to be dishonest. Plus, the words of those before us should carry considerable weight. In the words of MLK, extremists for hate and extremists for the preservation of injustice have no place in our society.
The children in Birmingham AL peacefully protested segregation, segregation with its inherent unequal education and unequal economic opportunity, and were greeted with violence. Can it happen again? I sure hope not but to ignore that possibility is to ignore the corrosive nature of hate and injustice.5 Our children have lived with too much hate in the past, still do and deserve better. It is up to us to make that happen and assure their well-being going forward.
- Brown-Nagin T. Civil Rights Queen: Constance Baker Motley. Pantheon Books, New York, 2022. 497 pp.