The 1963 campaign to desegregate Birmingham, Alabama, generated national publicity and federal action because of the violent response by local authorities and the decision by Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) to recruit children for demonstrations. The “Children’s Crusade” added a new dynamic to the struggle in Birmingham and was a major factor in the success of the campaign.
Aware that support for protests in Birmingham was waning during April 1963, King and the SCLC looked for ways to jumpstart the campaign. When the arrest and jailing of King did little to attract more protestors, SCLC staff member James Bevel proposed recruiting local students, arguing that while many adults may be reluctant to participate in demonstrations for fear of losing their jobs, their children had less to lose. King initially had reservations, but after deliberation he agreed, hoping for the action to “subpoena the conscience of the nation to the judgment seat of morality.” SCLC and the Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights (ACMHR) members immediately canvassed colleges and high schools for volunteers and began training them on the tactics of nonviolent direct action.
On 2 May, more than a thousand African American students skipped their classes and gathered at Sixth Street Baptist Church to march to downtown Birmingham. As they approached police lines, hundreds were arrested and carried off to jail in paddy wagons and school buses. When hundreds more young people gathered the following day for another march, commissioner Bull Connor directed the local police and fire departments to use force to halt the demonstration. Images of children being blasted by high-pressure fire hoses, clubbed by police officers, and attacked by police dogs appeared on television and in newspapers and triggered outrage throughout the world.
On the evening of 3 May, King offered encouragement to parents of the young protesters in a speech delivered at the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church. He said, “Don’t worry about your children; they are going to be alright. Don’t hold them back if they want to go to jail, for they are not only doing a job for themselves, but for all of America and for all of mankind.”
After intervention from the U. S. Department of Justice, the Birmingham campaign ended on 10 May when the SCLC and local officials reached an agreement in which the city promised to desegregate downtown stores and release all protestors from jail if the SCLC would end the boycotts and demonstrations. A week and a half later, the Birmingham board of education announced that all students who participated in the demonstrations would be either suspended or expelled. The SCLC and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) immediately took the issue to the local federal district court, where the judge upheld the ruling. On 22 May, the same day as the initial ruling, the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals reversed the decision and condemned the board of education for its actions.
While he faced criticism for exposing children to violence—most notably from Malcolm X, who said that “real men don’t put their children on the firing line”— King maintained that the demonstrations allowed children to develop “a sense of their own stake in freedom.” He later wrote, “Looking back, it is clear that the introduction of Birmingham’s children into the campaign was one of the wisest moves we made. It brought a new impact to the crusade, and the impetus that we needed to win the struggle.” The success in Birmingham provided momentum for the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom and helped pave the way for passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
Clayborne Carson , ed., The Autobiography of Martin Luther King, Jr., (New York, NY: Warner Books, Inc., 1998).
Martin Luther King, Jr., “Address Delivered at Sixteenth Street Baptist Church,” 3 May 1963.
M. S. Handler, “Malcolm X Terms Dr. King’s Tactics Futile,” New York Times, 11 May 1963.