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Child Watch® Column: "How Children Transformed America"

Release Date: May 17, 2013

Marian Wright Edelman

Daddy,” the boy said, “I don't want to disobey you, but I have made my pledge. If you try to keep me home, I will sneak off. If you think I deserve to be punished for that, I'll just have to take the punishment. For, you see, I'm not doing this only because I want to be free. I'm doing it also because I want freedom for you and Mama, and I want it to come before you die.”

This teenage boy overheard talking to his father by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was one of the hundreds of Birmingham children and youths who fifty years ago this month decided  to stand up for freedom.  They stood up to fire hoses and police dogs and went to jail by the hundreds and finally broke the back of Jim Crow in that city known as “Bombingham.” On this fiftieth anniversary of the Birmingham Children’s Crusade it is a time to remember, honor, and follow the example of the children who were frontline soldiers and transforming catalysts in America’s greatest moral movement of the twentieth century – the movement for civil rights and equal justice.

The Children’s Crusade happened at a critical time in the civil rights struggle in Birmingham.  In April 1963 the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, together with the Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights and its fearless leader Reverend Fred Shuttlesworth, had started a direct action desegregation campaign in the city.  There were mass meetings, lunch counter sit-ins, nonviolent marches, and boycotts of Birmingham’s segregated stores during the busy Easter shopping season.  Dr. King became one of several hundred people arrested in the first weeks of the campaign when he was jailed for violating an anti-protest injunction on April 12, Good Friday. Four days later he wrote his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.”  As the days went on with little response from city leaders, a new tactic was raised:  including more children and youths. 

Children didn’t face some of the risks adults might including losing breadwinning jobs, and college students (I had the privilege to be among them) had already proven to be extremely effective activists in cities across the South in desegregating lunch counters.  But once it became clear that many of the children volunteering for meetings and training sessions in Birmingham were high school students and some even younger, concern was raised about whether allowing and encouraging these children to protest was too dangerous.  Dr. King later described the decision this way:  “Even though we realized that involving teenagers and high-school students would bring down upon us a heavy fire of criticism, we felt that we needed this dramatic new dimension.  Our people were demonstrating daily and going to jail in numbers, but we were still beating our heads against the brick wall of the city officials’ stubborn resolve to maintain the status quo.  Our fight, if won, would benefit people of all ages.  But most of all we were inspired with a desire to give to our young a true sense of their own stake in freedom and justice.  We believed they would have the courage to respond to our call.” 

The children’s response “exceeded our fondest dreams.”  James Bevel, Andrew Young, Bernard Lee, and Dorothy Cotton helped identify and train the students.  For the children May 2 was “D-Day.”  Black disc jockeys were key allies in encouraging and deploying their listeners. Class presidents, star athletes, and prom queens from local high schools led the way as hundreds of children skipped class, gathered at the 16th Street Baptist Church, and marched into downtown Birmingham in groups of fifty, organized into lines two by two and singing freedom songs.  More than a thousand students marched the first day, and many hundreds were arrested. Segregationist police commissioner Bull Connor’s overwhelmed force started using school buses to take the children to jail.   But that first wave of children was only the beginning.  When hundreds more returned the next day, Bull Connor directed the police and fire department to begin using force on the child marchers.  The decision surprised even those used to his meanness and brutality but it was not enough to stop the determined young marchers.  The searing heartbreaking pictures of children being battered and tossed about by powerful fire hoses and attacked by police dogs appeared on front pages around the country and world and helped turned the tide of public opinion in support of Dr. King’s local and the national civil rights movement’s fight for justice. 

Marches and protests continued in Birmingham with children leading the way. As some were arrested and attacked, more and more kept coming to take their place leaving Birmingham jails so overflowing that some child prisoners were held at the city’s fairground and others in an open-air stockade where they were pelted by rain.  On May 8 a temporary truce was called and on May 10 an agreement was reached that released the jailed children and others on bond and paved the way for desegregation of Birmingham’s public facilities.  Hateful White segregationists in the city did not give in quietly.  Within hours the Gaston Motel where Dr. King and other SCLC leaders stayed and Dr. King’s brother Reverend A.D. King’s home were firebombed.  Four months later, a bomb was placed under the steps of the 16th Street Baptist Church with a timer set to go off Sunday morning that exploded as children were in the church’s basement preparing to lead Youth Sunday services.   Fourteen-year-olds Addie Mae Collins, Carole Robertson, and Cynthia Wesley and 11-year-old Denise McNair were killed and more than 20 others were injured.

More than a year later, when one interviewer asked Dr. King how he felt after that bombing he first described his despair at thinking that if men could be that bestial maybe there really was no hope.  But, he said, time had eventually “buoyed me with the inspiration of another moment which I shall never forget:  when I saw with my own eyes over three thousand young Negro boys and girls, totally unarmed, leave Birmingham’s 16th Street Baptist Church to march to a prayer meeting—ready to pit nothing but the power of their bodies and souls against Bull Connor’s police dogs, clubs, and fire hoses.”   He told the same interviewer:  “I never will forget a moment in Birmingham when a white policeman accosted a little Negro girl, seven or eight years old, who was walking in a demonstration with her mother.  ‘What do you want?’ the policeman asked her gruffly, and the little girl looked him straight in the eye and answered, ‘Fee-dom.’ She couldn’t even pronounce it, but she knew.  It was beautiful!  Many times when I have been in sorely trying situations, the memory of that little one has come into my mind, and has buoyed me.”

The same example that buoyed Dr. King should inspire us today.  As the Children’s Defense Fund makes final preparations for our 2013 Freedom Schools summer enrichment program that will serve nearly 12,000 children in 96 cities our theme for this year is “Children and Youth as Movement Builders and Change Agents.” We seek to honor on this fiftieth anniversary of the Birmingham Children’s Crusade the role of children and youth who were frontline soldiers in desegregating public schools and public accommodations.   I hope they will inspire us to remind children and youth today that they are not citizens in waiting; they too can be transforming agents for change.    

Marian Wright Edelman is President of the Children's Defense Fund whose Leave No Child Behind® mission is to ensure every child a Healthy Start, a Head Start, a Fair Start, a Safe Start and a Moral Start in life and successful passage to adulthood with the help of caring families and communities. For more information go to

Mrs. Edelman's Child Watch Column also appears each week on The Huffington Post.

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Here's what others have said:

Submitted by DrWin at: May 20, 2013
What a great history reminder as to the risks, consequences and ultimate accomplishments of this fight. Thank you, and God bless us all as we try to love true and spread the words and deeds of justice.

Submitted by Mr.Mike at: May 20, 2013
On April 4th of this year I was traveling through the south with my wife and our son. On our way through Birmingham, AL. we visited the 16th Street Baptist Church. I gave my 6 year old son a history lesson about the civil rights movement and how adults and children would march in peacful protest so that they could enjoy the same freedoms that we enjoyed. Children today need to understand the civil rights struggle of the 1960's because it still continues today. Our children can be the catalyst to continue a path to racial equality.

Submitted by Anonymous at: May 19, 2013
Beautifully written history lesson for those who were there and for those who follow.

Submitted by Mara at: May 19, 2013
GOOD COLUMN.I grew up in northern Wisconsin where there were no black people. I had one good black friend in college in 1950-54 in Milwaukee, WIS. I have cheered for all the efforts it took to become free/equal citizens. I'm so sorry for the terrible things the blacks have suffered from the whites. Martin Luther King was a true hero, in my opinion. Many are true heroes for continuing on, knowing you deserved the best of this world and having faith to keep fighting for it. equal status in American society.

Submitted by Barbara Woodhouse at: May 18, 2013
Thank you for reminding us of the courage and vision of these chidren and youths. I write about these young people, and others, in my book "Hidden in Pain Sight: The Tragedy of Chidren's Rights from Ben Frankin to Lionel Tate." They truly built a new world and they continue to do so. They deserve our support and our THANKS.

Submitted by Eric at: May 18, 2013

Submitted by Michael at: May 18, 2013
I believe there needs to be another new children's crusade against bullying, violence and all forms of abuse for which I believe are the major social and moral issues of today in American society. The other major moral crisis and social issue is the economic and social inequalities, injustices, unbalances, abuse , oppression, discrimination towards the poor and towards our young people. To solve many of the major social ills and problems in our country and communities as a nation, society and among our leaders including among our political leaders we need to be investing more in the welfare, health, education and the personal and moral/spiritual growth and development of our children and adolescents than we do. As a nation for too long we rather invest in programs that benefit corporations and the wealthy and those in positions in power. It is about we invest in services, supports and programs that make a difference in the lives and long term wellbeing of our people and certainly among our future leaders our children.

Submitted by chlbldng at: May 18, 2013
Thank you for this column. It was very moving. I was too young to be part of the movement of the sixties (barely old enough to have a firm grasp of what was going on) but I have studied the time period and I am always amazed by what ordinary people did for "fee-dom". I first saw Ms. Wright Edleman in the film of her and Senator Kennedy as they toured areas of extreme poverty when I was in college. I am going to my 30th this weekend from Mount Holyoke College. This column has served to renew what I learned as a working class black girl/woman who was really learning all of this fpr the first time. Sorry so long. Thank you for what you do.

Submitted by merciesgirl at: May 17, 2013
"And a little child shall lead them."

Submitted by Allison at: May 17, 2013
And let's also remember the 15 and 16 year old Little Rock Nine who integrated Central High School in 1957.....