It was not all that long ago that Jim Crow laws made
segregation and discrimination a part of life in America. While these
laws existed primarily in the "old south," negative attitudes about
diversity and legal barriers to integration existed all over America.
For example, in Chicago suburbs, it was common to have property deeds
state that a house could not be sold to an African American.
Imagine what segregation would be like. Some American
citizens were not allowed to do the same things or go to the same
places as white people. African Americans couldn't go to most
restaurants, parks, hotels, swimming pools, or amusement parks. They
even had to use separate drinking fountains and bathrooms. Sometimes,
there were no public restrooms that they could use at all.
Generations of African Americans grew up with these
injustices and lived their whole lives powerless to change the
situation. Being forced to live this way and not being able to change
things is difficult. It is even harder to explain to your children, a
tragic and sad situation.
Legal and cultural oppression was deeply ingrained in
the south. Those that talked or attempted to work for change were
dealt with violently. The law seemed to look the other way. In some
cases, the law seemed to actually be on the side of the lawbreakers
that committed crimes of violence to maintain segregation.
The situation looked bleak and overwhelming. Like many
of his followers, Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was
discouraged. What could they do? Many were ready to give up, but they
kept meeting, talking, and praying. One night, when Dr. King asked who
would demonstrate with him, ready to go to jail if arrested, the
children stood up.
This surprised everyone; some adults even told them to
sit down. Dr. King was grateful for their offer and thanked them. He
did not want to see children suffer fighting discrimination. The
children, however, would not be denied the opportunity to be part of
change. They wanted to help.
This was distressing to Dr. King. The only volunteers
to take action were children. He was not comfortable leading a protest
with children. Reverend James Bevel, another civil rights activist and
minister, encouraged Dr. King to accept the children's support.
Reverend Bevel asked: ďAre they too young to go to segregated schools?
Are they too young to be kept out of amusement parks? Are they too
young to be refused a hamburger in a restaurant?Ē
Dr. King and the assembled crowd all answered, "NO!"
Reverend Bevel replied, "Then they are not too young
to want their freedom."
It was difficult to deny the powerful reasoning and
wisdom that Reverend Bevel shared. It made no sense to make children
wait a lifetime for freedom. Everyone agreed that if children were old
enough to join the church, they were old enough to decide to march.
Word of this bold decision quickly spread. Children
and young adults told their friends. On the day of the march, they
were a thousand strong.
As expected, the sheriff arrested the protesters and
put them in jail. The next day, even more showed up to protest.
Friends of the children and young adults that had been arrested joined
the march. Parents and their extended families got involved. This
happened again the following day. Eventually, more than one thousand
children were in jail.
Reverend Bevel understood that adults might be
reluctant to march. They were rightfully afraid of going to jail. They
were afraid of losing their jobs. They were afraid of hurting their
Children were not bound by these fears. Reverend Bevel
knew that when adults saw children march in a dignified and brave
manner, standing up for their rights, older people joined the action.
Perhaps even more important, Reverend Bevel knew that
the sight of children being hauled to jail would dramatically stir the
Today it is hard to believe, but in Birmingham, there
were people that supported the local Sheriff, Eugene "Bull" Conner,
and the vicious way that he tried to beat down the challenge to
segregation. He instructed police to beat marchers with their night
sticks. He told them to release police dogs on the children, allowing
the dogs to bite.
He directed the Fire Department to turn fire hoses on
the children, so strong, the force of the water could strip bark off
trees. Imagine the destructive force of 100 pounds of pressure per
square inch being sprayed on you.
Local, then national, and then international news
organizations covered this abuse in print and TV. When people all over
the country and world saw pictures of this brutal misuse of police
power all directed at children, they were outraged.
What type of society would do this to children? What
was their crime? The protesters only wanted the right to live like
other American kids.
Unfortunately, the nation was not willing to have a
reasonable discussion about human rights in America. But now,
Birmingham, Alabama, was being shamed while the rest of the country
and world watched.
Of course, the white people in Birmingham did not want
the world condemning them and their way of life. It was one thing to
abuse children when it was seen as a "local issue;" it was another
thing to have the eyes of the world watching and proclaiming, "SHAME
The injustice hurt the local economy. Who would want
to go into such a community and conduct business, go shopping, or look
People were afraid to go downtown and support local
retailers and restaurants. Groups of African Americans and whites that
had previously disagreed on action were now united in the belief that
a grave injustice was being committed on the streets of Birmingham.
People saw that Sheriff Connor was not a law enforcer.
He was a bigot and an abusive thug. The children were not committing
any real crimes. It was the authorities that proclaimed to represent
law and order that were acting like criminals.
The great achievement of the Children's March was the
realization that peaceful action on the part of protesters would show
the nation and world the ugly nature of racism. When Sheriff Connor
authorized and advocated excessive and dangerous force against
children, he stood naked in front of the world. His "moral authority"
had been stripped.
Filling the jails in Alabama with thousands of
children who's only crime was to advocate for a normal childhood was a
gross injustice that few could stomach. Even fewer could justify it.
Up to now, it was not possible to get adults to
address the hypocrisy and injustice of segregation. Now, adults all
across the nation demanded change.
Up to now, the President of the United States, John F.
Kennedy, felt he could do nothing about the segregation in the south.
It was beyond executive authority.
After the chaos and embarrassment of Birmingham's
Children's March, he could no longer stand by and watch. The action of
youths and teens had awaken the nation -- the ugly, violent, and
unjust situation in Alabama was no longer a "local issue."
Dr. Martin Luther King was arrested for his role in
the Children's March. President Kennedy placed a personal call to the
police station. Dr. King was released from jail.
The Children's March's original goal was to
desegregate downtown stores in Birmingham. Now, Dr. King had a global
stage and the leverage to demand more.
Clearly, brave children that were victims of racism,
police brutality, and uncalled for incarceration deserved more. With
the country more united, now was the time to negotiate for meaningful
The fight for Civil Rights in America was a long and hard battle. Many
were hurt and many lives were lost. Families were torn apart.
The Children's March began a series of events that
made passage of The Civil Rights Act Possible. Great historical events
are connected. Letís please remember the children when we honor
Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
By Bill Breitsprecher
All Rights Reserved