The Children's March

Club TNT and the Children's MarchIt 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: “Are 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?”

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 families.

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 nation's conscience.

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 ON YOU!"

The injustice hurt the local economy. Who would want to go into such a community and conduct business, go shopping, or look for entertainment?

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 change.
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. Let’s please remember the children when we honor Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

By Bill Breitsprecher
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