Fifty years ago, Birmingham leaders used fire hoses, police dogs and jailings to stop waves of children who marched out of a church and on to downtown streets seeking equal rights for blacks.
On May 2, more than 1,000 students recreated that landmark demonstration, bringing tears to the eyes of 65-year-old Ronald Short. He was only 15 when he participated in the so-called “Children’s Crusade,” which segregationists met with overwhelming force that shocked the nation. He wiped away tears as he joined in the commemoration five decades later.
“It’s good,” Short said as he walked with a large group during the march. “It keeps the dream alive.”
The experience made high school student Tamisha Hall regret she wasn’t around for the original protest.
“I wish I was born back in that time so I can say, ‘I want to go to jail for my freedom,’” said Hall, 15.
An estimated 1,400 students from a dozen high schools and colleges marched from Birmingham’s Sixteenth Baptist Church to mark the 50th anniversary of the Children’s Crusade.
The march 50 years ago ended with the Alabama city unleashing fire hoses and police dogs on demonstrators. More than 2,500 youth were arrested over two days.
The ghastly images showing the depth of racial turmoil in the South, and the resulting public outcry, helped spur passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
Paulette Roby, 63, still remembers the spot where she was arrested as a girl.
“We had left Sixteenth Street Church where we’re standing now, and I was arrested right there where the fire truck is,” Roby said.
Roby was gratified to see so many people pouring out of the church during the re-enactment, which followed a historical program for students in the sanctuary.
“It makes me feel good to know that they are interested enough to come out and see what took place at that time, and it lets me know they are ready to move forward with what we started,” she said.
The Birmingham campaign was organized then by the Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights, led by the Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth, and the Atlanta-based Southern Christian Leadership Conference, led by the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.
Protests against legalized racial segregation in Birmingham began in April 1963, but relatively few people participated and the demonstrations generated only limited attention.
King and his aides began the “Children’s Crusade” on May 2, 1963, and police arrested hundreds of young people marching through downtown from Sixteenth Street Baptist Church.
With the jails full and faced with more protests the next day, then-Public Safety Commissioner Eugene “Bull” Connor ordered the use of fire hoses and police dogs to quell demonstrations. Some of the worst violence during the children’s march occurred near the same park that re-enactors passed during the commemoration. Today, the park is filled with statues based on images of the violence.
The re-enactment was peaceful, with police guarding protesters. Some officers sang and clapped along with a marching band.