The Children's Crusade - History Gal

The Children's Crusade

By History Gal

Often kids sit on the sidelines of history, but this was not the case in 1963 Birmingham.

A Little Background:
1963 Birmingham, Alabama was a deeply segregated city. Learn more about it by reading the Birmingham Segregation Codes, 1951, viewing photographs from the Library of Congress, or visiting the site Kids in Birmingham.

Birmingham Campaign
In April 1963, the Alabama Christian Movement of Human Rights and the SCLC led by Martin Luther King, Jr. began a series of marches and sit-ins to challenge the segregation that existed in the city.

The 16th Street Baptist Church served as a headquarters and meeting place for the campaign.
On April 12, 1963, Martin Luther King, Jr and more than 50 others were arrested for violating a court ordered injunction. While in jail, King wrote Letter from Birmingham Jail. With many of the movement's leaders imprisoned, the protest was at a critical point. SCLC leader James Bevel believed that a Children's Crusade might turn the tide in Birmingham and began teaching thousands of children non-violent tactics.

May 2, 1963 - Over a thousand students, including some in elementary school, skipped school and met at the 16th Street Baptist Church. One principal tried to keep his students safe by preventing them from joining the marches. He locked the school fence to keep all the students safely inside. Determined students just scaled the fence, joined the protestors at the church, and marched to downtown Birmingham. By the end of the day, several hundred students had been arrested.

Why would students join the protest? Check out these sites to learn why: New Yorker article, interview with Miriam McClendon, interview with Audrey Hendricks, and BBC Witness.

May 3-5, 1963 - The Children's Crusade continued. This time, Birmingham Commissioner of Public Safety, Bull Conner, was prepared to meet the peaceful marchers with powerful fire or water hoses, vicious police dogs, and police armed and ready to attack with batons.

Despite the violence, each day more students and more marchers arrived at the 16th Street Baptist Church to continue the non-violent marches and protests. Photographers and news crews captured the violent actions. Images of school children being knocked down by high pressure water and being challenged by police dogs resulted in a worldwide outcry against the Birmingham police and government. The Communist world, in particular, devoted a lot of media attention to the events in Birmingham. Why do you think they would do that?

See some of the images seen by the world:
Photographs from Charles Moore

By May 6, so many students and adults had been arrested that the Alabama State Fair grounds had to be turned into a makeshift prison!

May 10, 1963 - Birmingham store owners agreed to desegregate all lunch counters, bathrooms, water fountains, and fitting rooms. Stores would hire African American clerks and sales people and the city agreed to free all who had been arrested. However, the Birmingham Board of Education decided to expel all students who had participated in the protests (the expulsions were eventually overturned with a court ruling).

May 11, 1963 - A bomb destroyed the motel where King had been staying.

May 13, 1963 - President Kennedy deployed 3000 federal troops to Birmingham to restore order.

The actions of the incredibly brave students who participated in the Children's crusade, changed United States history. After the events in Birmingham, President Kennedy announced his support of a Civil Rights Act. The Civil Right Act was finally passed in 1964 at the urging of President Johnson.

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