15. April 2013 06:46
by Tammi Sharpe
4 Comments

Protesting

15. April 2013 06:46 by Tammi Sharpe | 4 Comments

 

Protesting

While pictures provide a glimpse into the experience of the protesters, the below excerpts from individual protesters allow one to gain a closer look at the different experiences.  These are quotes from individuals who were youth in 1963.  Some discuss some of the logistical aspects of protesting providing insights into how the principles of non-violence were upheld.  Others describe in detail their emotions—fears and excitement— and how they overcame intimidation.  Many were arrested and a few describe in vivid detail what if felt like to have a fire hose directed at you.  

Bernard Johnson:  Western Olin High

[W]e left the church and we had to go to our destination by route of alley ways. …After we traveled probably two and a half blocks we were in the middle of the alley way.  The police entered one end of the alley and blocked us off and the fire truck came through the other end.  The fire truck came with the pressure of the fire hoses….There was probably 12 of us.  We were in between buildings in the alley way so there was basically nowhere to run or escape.  The fire hose had so much pressure, at the time I suppose I weighed 130 pounds or so.  The pressure actually lifts you off the ground if you’re close enough to it.  I was thrust from the ground and I imagine I went up at least 5 feet and came down on a wrought iron fence, the fence that had the spears and when I came down I was caught in the crotch on the fence.  At this time the police had turned the dogs loose up the alley and the dog is coming up to where I am on this fence and they have this man eating look, these police dogs.  So, this was in back of a funeral home that this fence was attached and that was the only opening that was throughout this alley.  Fortunate enough I was hung but ripped my pants from the fence and [I] fell on the other side of the fence from where the dog was.  That was how I managed to escape. 

Donald Hauser:  Freshman, Parker High School

[I]t was really nice.  It was exciting for a fourteen year old; it was really something.  We marched all the way down Eight Ave and the crowd got bigger as we went down the Avenue.  We came straight down  and when we got to the back of the church at Sixteenth Street we made a right and then a left and came into the front and it was a humongous crowd already…We went into the church and sat all that day singing.

Rallis Jones Jr.:  Sophomore, Carver High School

[At the church] we had a briefing…We were told what was to be expected.  They explained to us that the march was a non-violent demonstration.  If anybody had any type of weapons at that time to bring them forward…We had pocket knives and stuff like that….[T]hey took up all the pocket knives and they told us that we were probably going to jail….It was exciting but scary, because we knew that the policemen were outside.  Inside the church it was a good feeling, because we felt safe….It was good to be participating.  I felt a part of the Movement.  I was sort of caught up in it.  Especially when hearing all these leaders speak to us, motivating us and telling us how we didn’t have to worry about anything.

We were assigned different groups and some of us were given signs and we had a leader leading us toward town…..We were walking down on the sidewalk by the park.  As a matter of fact, we didn’t get far before we were arrested.  We left the church and started walking toward the park, the paddy wagons pulled up and the policemen were there.     

John Henry Lee:  Freshman, Immaculata High School

I remember people like Andy Young and James Bevill and so forth…They told us how we were to march and what to respond.  They anticipated things that the police would do.  We were instructed “When you are holding your signs and everything, they’ll come and try to scare you and snatch your sign and try to intimidate you.  So you just let it go and defeat that purpose."  They anticipated that and some other things about how we were supposed to orderly proceed in the march. 

We left that church and they [the police] didn’t anticipate us coming from that direction.  This was a new tactic, I guess.  So we made a pretty good distance because they didn’t know where we were coming from.  People were coming from different directions….At some point they [the police] discovered that we were coming from this way and then they came and stopped our line and lined us up in front of some store and started to arrest my group.  

Floretta Scruggs Tyson:  Sophomore, Ullman High School

I was kind of nervous…because I really didn’t think I was going to jail but I was getting prepared to [be arrested]….[I]n the Movement they were teaching us the non-violent act and what to do in case we went to jail….I took things out of the house like underwear, toothbrush, toothpaste in case I went to jail…..So my friends and I went on to the church and when we got there it was a bunch of other people there and we had already been assigned to what we were going to do.  So we got in our little groups…they were still teaching us, telling us what to do in case something should happen.  So we listened and then it was time to march.  Well, we got maybe about a half a block from the church and we were arrested.  There were a lot of paddy wagons out. 

Miriam McClendon:  Sophomore,  Wenonah High School

 

When we go to Kelly Ingram Park we were split up in different groups and each group had an assigned area.  My group’s assigned area was the Atlantic Mills Thrift Store…..[At the store] [w]e had out our little signs and we formed our little circle and we started marching and singing…..[The store manager] immediately called the police….[and we were all arrested.] 

Aldridge Willis:  Junior,  Fairfield High School

We had come to the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church to get formal instructions as to how to conduct ourselves.  From listening to people we were not to fight back or strike back but we were to offer ourselves up to prayer and for song services…..

 

I witnessed these fire hoses.  They were so powerful and when they turned them up into the trees those fire hoses would just cut limbs like an invisible hand.  They just cut limbs, knocked down trees like an invisible hand. ….  [Then someone threw a bottle] at the fireman that was spraying the water upon the demonstrators and hit the fireman upon the head.  Then the fireman turned the hoses on us…we were cut down.  My body was picked up…because of the force of the water my legs were knocked out from underneath me.  I fell to the ground…  [P]eople [were] running and screaming and so forth.   

Willie Eatman:  Parker High School

When we got to the church the first thing they ask you is to register because your name needs to be on a register.  If you did go to jail or get hurt, that way you can be accounted for.  I tell the people that I was with to go ahead and sign in and once we get inside the church then they’d have a group of people over here for carrying signs, and a group of people for marching, a group of people going to different parts of the city for different things.  For instance, one day they gave me a sign to go down to the city hall, me and another guy.  They didn’t want but two people.…

So we had to take a sign and put it up on our car and walk down like there was nothing going on even though the police was sitting out in front of city hall and they kept on looking at us.  And one of them asked.  ‘What do y’all niggers think you’re doing?’  We didn’t say anything, we just kept on walking real slow in front of the building.  Then another man said, ‘They’re lost. Those niggers don’t know what’s going on.’  About the time we got middle ways to the steps…I thought they were going to shoot me…because they reached for their guns.  I got the sign out and I ran off to the City Hall shouting “We Shall Overcome, We Shall Overcome….” They grabbed me, threw me down and carried me back…and put me in a cell for a minute.  Then they said ‘He’s underage.’  So they couldn’t hold me.  They told me Nigger, you go home, you go home.  I mean go home. We catch you again.  We gonna lock you up.’  So I turned around and walked right back down to the church and grabbed another sign.    

We’d leave the church, we’d line up in front of the church and we’d go down Sixth Avenue and then down Nineteenth Street.  Then we’d turn and come back down Fourth Avenue….

26. March 2013 07:57
by Tammi Sharpe
5 Comments

Teachers and Students

26. March 2013 07:57 by Tammi Sharpe | 5 Comments

Students and teachers faced a number of dilemmas over youth engagement in the Birmingham Civil Rights Movement. Students risked going to jail, being exposed to possible violence, and possible expulsion from school. At the same time, teachers and other school officials were torn about students’ participation and had been ordered by the local school board to prevent student participation. Consequently, some of them put their own jobs on the line. As teachers’ and students’ statements show, each school differed in its approach to dealing with the “Children’s Crusade.” The selected quotes below provide a sense of the variety of views and scenarios. These quotes also give a feel for the energy that was mobilizing youth in May 1963. The map is meant to provider readers with a sense of the location of the school in reference to the protest location.

  

View Birmingham in a larger map

Yellow pushpin - Parker High School

Red balloon - location of the protests

Purple pushpin - Wenonah High School

Green pushpin - Carver High School

Turquoise pushpin - Ullman High School

Pink pushpin - Westfield High School

Red pushpin - Fairfield High School

Blue balloon - Immaculata High School

Yellow balloon - Western Olin High School 

Milton Stollenwerck:  Teacher

At the very beginning I thought that it [the movement] was using the children as pawns.  I came to realize that in numbers there is strength.  I never shall forget there was a woman in Collegeville who was up around the hood and she had 8 or 9 children, all of them went to Carver High School.  One morning after the mass meeting A. D. King, Martin’s brother, came to Carver High School, and at that time we had chain linked fences around the building, but the gates were not locked.  I don’t know how they came to that decision but the students were in the halls talking about lets go, lets go.  I wanted to know what was going on so I went up around the office and the principal stepped out of his office and he said:  I’ll not try to stop you, if you’re going go ahead, if you’re not going let’s go into the classes and have school.  He turned around and went back in. 

A.D. King…something …precluded him [from] coming on the grounds.  I think the law said he couldn’t come on the grounds….Across the street, he stood there and raised his arms and said: ‘Y’all come.”  And they all followed out there…..When those students left the grounds of Carver High School they left three [students] in the school…Everybody left…we had three students.  And these were a preacher’s children.   

Edward Thompson:  Teacher

 

I was deeply in sympathy with what was going on….[W]e just told them [the students], if they go, just keep going.  Don’t tear the school up.  Now when the fellows [who were recruiting] would come in….we stopped them at the door.  And if the kids wanted to go nobody stopped them; the door [was] opened and the gate [was] opened and you go on across that street…..I respected their right to demonstrate, even though I could lose my job.  

Carl Grace:  Freshman Fairfield High School

I was sitting in music class…we began to hear someone down the hall saying , “let’s go.”….Then all of the sudden it sounded like horses, you could hear the footsteps coming down the hall saying, “let’s go.”  It was getting closer and closer and the closer it got the footsteps were heavier.  Someone got to our door and opened up the music class door and said, “let’s go.”  We all got up, Ms. Major [the teacher], she stood in the door and tried to stop us…we all just hit the hallway and we went to the next door and we began to be the ones that opened the door, “let’s go.”  The kids just rushed on out.  Many teachers tried to stop us and many teachers were for us going.

We began to march from Fairfield High School went up to the west side of Miles College and over to Carline Road to Bessemer Road.    

Emily Thomas Ellis:  Parker High School

[W]e decided that we would just go into school that morning.  And we went in and stayed about a half hour.  After we had been in there somebody said, ‘Hey it’s time to go.’….[A]ll of the students just stood up, they slammed their books down and they walked out.

Rallis Jones Jr.:  Sophomore Carver High School

In 1963 some of the civil rights leaders came to our school.  They weren’t on the campus; they were across the street from the campus.  They were out recruiting the students to come and join in on the demonstrations….It was really sort of a tough decision.  We were all standing there and we couldn’t decide what to do because the leaders were telling us to come and the teachers were telling us if we crossed the street that we couldn’t come back to school.  I remember some students saying, ‘No, don’t go across the street,’ and some saying ‘Yeah, let’s go.’  So I think what finally happened, somebody took the initiative to go across the street.  And once one person went across, a bunch of us followed. 

Robert Simpson:  Junior at Ullman High School

[Members of the Movement] were allowed to come to the schools.  They were ostracized.   All of the teachers at that time were afraid for their jobs.  They had been told that if they got involved that they would not work for the Birmingham Public School.  I could remember during the time when the demonstrations got hot, they locked the doors at Ullman and told us we could not go downtown.  But, it was a message that didn’t get through to us.  They locked the gates, but we tore them down.  We pulled the fence loose and held the fence back and everybody by the hundreds came out.  It was just no stopping us.  [A] few kids stayed in school, but the majority…went downtown. 

Emily Thomas Ellis:  Parker High School

[W]e decided that we would just go into school that morning.  And we went in and stayed about a half hour.  After we had been in there somebody said, ‘Hey it’s time to go.’….[A]ll of the students just stood up, they slammed their books down and they walked out. 

Miriam McClendon:  Sophomore at Wenonah High School

[T]here were a number of us [at my school] who already were involved in the Movement again through the mass meetings….There were a number of us who just got up, walked out of class and we walked from Wenonah High School to downtown Birmingham [which was about 7 or 8 mile walk]…We walked and we sang and changed and, in retrospect, I think about it now and if I were to really stop and think about it, I say Wow, that’s a long way.  But, back then we were young.   

Aldridge Willis:  Junior in Fairfield High School

[The] Teachers did not encourage us, but they did not restrain us that much…It was like a benign look.   Yes, you go ahead and do it, I’m not telling you to do it but just…you know what to do.  That sort of encouragement and discouragement at the same time.  They didn’t get out and try to lead us toward any demonstrations but I don’t think they turned our names in or tried to do some punitive things to us if we participated.  

My mother being a school teacher, I was aware…[that] a letter had circulated from Fairfield Board of Education that if any teacher, teachers’ husbands or wives, or teachers’ children got caught in the demonstrations that they were going to be terminated.  

Deborah Hill: Student

I remember coming back to school [after attending a mass meeting at which Dr. King spoke] telling all of my friends, who had not attended the meeting, what Dr. King had told us.  And how we as students could become involved in this movement…. [My friends] were equally as excited as I was….I was not telling my parents a lot about it….parents had a lot of fear about our involvement.  They equally wanted to see change take place but that was a time of fear within this city because there were many things that were happening…People were very frightened about taking chances [and] about becoming involved.

[We went to the protests from school.]  There were hundreds of us…there was no school [as] there weren’t enough students left in the classroom…We were getting another education.  We were getting a valuable education in life… [There was resistance from teachers and the principal to our participation] but we had made up [our]mind about what we were going to do.  I think it was passive resistance in the sense that they did not encourage [us] but they also did not discourage [us].  They knew this that was something that was happening for all of us.  It was not just for my benefit or for their benefit but this was for the benefit of future generations. [We walked several miles to join the protests.  We were] walking with friends and singing and walking in groups.  [The miles were] just simply numbers.  You never think in terms of the miles.  You never think in terms of your feet hurting.  You are singing, you are so inspired, you are so upbeat, you are so uplifted, you have such a strong belief in what you are doing and what you are about to do.  All of these other ramifications were in the far distance about what would actually happen.  

Willie Eatman: Student Parker High School

R. E. Johnson, was the principal at the time at Parker. I went and asked him, would it be okay for me to go out and demonstrate? He said no and he just kept saying, no, no , no. [….] So when things started getting a little deeper up here then I asked him again. So he told me one day after I asked him so many times, I said would it be okay for me to leave and go demonstrate? He said, ‘no, you cannot go, you cannot go.’ He pointed at the door and he said, ‘no, you cannot go.’ I looked at him and smiled and he said, ‘you cannot go.’ And I left out the door.

I left that day by myself…then the next day. I always came to school, and the next day…I was telling some more kids. I said, listen he’s not going to say anything just come on. So a group of us walked to the door, he was standing up at the door with his hands on his hips. He didn’t say anything, he said, ‘where do y’all think you’re going?’ We said, we’re going to demonstrate. He said, ‘y’all can’t go’, and pointed at the door like that. We eased on out the door.

[Then there was the day when a lot of students left Parker] that day was something like a D-day. Everyone just felt like it was real tight. That morning when you first got to school and everyone was sitting out there and they couldn’t concentrate knowing what’s going on downtown about these dogs biting people and firemen had put water on people and stuff like that. A lot of them was afraid of going down there. The next thing I know everyone started coming all out of the windows and stuff.

[When we returned to school I knew I would not be expelled as dictated by the city ordinance.] We had a bit meeting in out auditorium. We sat down and talked about the situation. He [a school authority] said that he saw a lot of violence going on down there [downtown area] and he was telling us that we really shouldn’t be down there because of the violence.

18. March 2013 08:27
by Tammi Sharpe
1 Comments

Mass Meetings

18. March 2013 08:27 by Tammi Sharpe | 1 Comments

Please click here to hear an audio taping of the Mass Meeting held immediately after the Birmingham Police began using dogs and firehoses to quell the protests.  Dr. Martin Luther King is the main speaker: Audio of Mass Meeting with MLK

Mass meetings were at the crux of the Birmingham Civil Rights Movement.  This is where participants learned about the objectives of the Movement, their rights, the principles of non-violence, and logistical matters related to the protests.  Held in churches, the meetings were also of a spiritual nature with lots of singing.  To gain a better sense of the meetings, this week we share the memories of the youths who participated in the mass meetings.  

Bernard Johnson:  Western Olin High

As a young person, I thought that the speeches were too long and I had more interest in the young ladies….We took it for granted if Rev. King or someone of that stature was at one of the meetings and made a speech….I would always leave with a certain level of inspiration.

Emily Thomas Ellis:  Parker High School

[The mass meetings were] spiritual and rewarding….They sang freedom songs. 

Miriam McClendon:  Sophomore at Wenonah High School

A lot of singing and rally.  They discussed the critical issues, the same issues that were being discussed in the larger mass meetings with the adults, but they tailored it to fit the temperament of the student. 

John Henry Lee:  Freshman Immaculata High School

[A mass meeting] was like church.  It was a lot of emotion, but you used the Bible to sort of explain what was happening or you use that type of emotion to translate it into the political thing to advance the human rights effort.  

Deborah Hill:  Student

I had the opportunity of meeting and seeing Dr. Martin Luther King….At the meeting he explained to the young people, the part that we would play in the movement.  I remember the discussions being centered on non-violence.  The non-violence was something that was strongly emphasized and strongly stressed.  And you know when you’re young, you have so much energy and that energy has to be redirected.  We didn’t think that we could all be as non-violent as Dr. King had wanted us to be but this was something that was taught and told to us and given reasons as to why if we were going to be effective why the non-violent way would be the most effective way to be.  

Eloise Staples:  Student Freshman Parker High School

The moment was so strong and intense and the people were so…and I want to say fierce from a standpoint of anger but they were so strong…it was contagious.  Even if you went with the intent of fooling around, you listened…it was the euphoria I guess. …. [I]t made us stop and think.  We weren’t into reading newspapers and watching the news and that kind of thing but it made you wonder, what’s really going on? 

Robert Simpson:  Junior Ullman High School

It was like a fire….[like] that song… ‘Ain’t going to let nobody turn me around.’  All those things that we sang about, we believed…..Dr. King did stress the non-violent part. He explained…about Ghandi.

Floretta Scruggs Tyson:  Sophomore in Ullman High School

[Mass meetings] were like going to church.  

 

 

11. March 2013 09:26
by Tammi Sharpe
4 Comments

Motivation and Becoming Socially Conscious

11. March 2013 09:26 by Tammi Sharpe | 4 Comments

A range of motivations drove youth to join the Birmingham Civil Rights Movement in 1963.  Their participation was a contentious issue, which even Malcolm X commented was ill advised.  However, their participation was instrumental to the success of the Civil Rights Movement.  The police’s mistreatment of youth—unleashing of dogs, use of fire hoses and detention— shocked the nation and the world, bringing needed attention to the injustices of segregation.  Through the participation of youth, the Birmingham Civil Rights Movement succeeded in fulfilling a tenant of Gandhi’s strategy, “fill the jails.”  Like adults children as young as eight years old were detained, overwhelming the capacity of the jails and the legal system.   

The protests were also of direct relevance to youth’s lives and their future.  Dorothy Cotton, former Director of the Citizenship Education Program of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference defended youth’s participation in the protests as follows:  “People toss that phrase [use of children] around….I didn’t think of it that way and I don’t [know] anyone who has really thought about the movement…in a real analytical or understanding way, to think of that in a pejorative kind of negative way…. [P]eople got caught up in the dynamics and actually the spirit of it, and also the justness of the cause and understood and felt that something is happening here and I am going to miss out on something important if I don’t get involved…. It was exciting to see children get turned on to this notion that we have a democracy and it is not right that a segment of the population should be excluded from the mainstream of life. 

 

This week we look at their motivations, which in turn reveal how and when the Birmingham youth in the 1960s became socially conscious of their world and their role within it. 

Robert Simpson:  Junior at Ullman High School

We didn’t know as far as what is freedom or voting or things like that.  [Members of the movement] would come and talk to us.  Most parents would tell their children, ‘Get in the house, you don’t need to hear this.’  But, with us being young kids, naturally, we were interested, curious anyway.  So, what we started doing was just slipping off at night, going over to the church where these meetings were going on and people were talking to us, telling about the things that we were entitled to, which we had no idea about until they started talking to us.  These younger kids were more receptive to hearing what these people had to say than the older people, in the beginning.  My mother was one of those who very definitely was not or had no interesting in begin part of the Movement at that time….But, then, after she saw that…I was caught up in it…, and she couldn’t stop me.  Before I knew it, she was right there with me. 

It was like a fever that swept through Birmingham with the younger people and a lot of the older people too.  We all got caught up in this Movement.  We knew what we had been facing and we knew…what we could not do.  My aunt, I can remember she wanted to vote.  She was like in her 50s and she couldn’t vote.  She would go down…to try to take that literacy test…but they would always come up with some old trick question or something to keep her from registering to vote.  It was very few Blacks who got a chance to vote….Wherein if it was a White person…all they…did was sign on the dotted line.  But, it was all just a Black and White thing.  And, like I said, these things had been going on, but the Movement came along….[and provided the needed] leadership.  I think Dr. King coming along when he did was the greatest thing that ever happened to America.  It helped to erase a lot of things that had been going on since slavery.  

Deborah Hill:  High School Senior

As a young child I remember both my parents having to take a test to vote.  I remember them discussing having to pay poll taxes and it was like I felt that it was so unfair that you had to take a test as a citizen of this country in order to have the right to vote; this was something that I refused that I would have to do.  And when the movement came along about civil rights and equal rights for all Americans,  I felt that this was something that I was going to be a part of.  This was just another aspect in my life…: bringing about positive change within the Birmingham system.   

Eloise Staples: Student Freshman at Parker High School

I couldn’t understand why when we walked from the car downtown if we wanted a Krystal hamburger we had to stand outside the window and order a 10 cent hamburger…there were seats inside. I couldn’t understand, it didn’t matter that it was….I just couldn’t understand it. My dime was as good as his dime. Why couldn’t I just go inside and purchase what I wanted?.... [Y]ou knew your place so to speak… [S]o it really didn’t bother you until the subconscious became the conscious as far as why not and I started asking questions.

Bernard Johnson:  Western Olin High

[I]n recent times I have heard various opinions about [children being mislead by adults] and the opinions range from the movement was at a stall and the scheme was to bring in children and play off the sympathy of the children being abused.  I only know of a couple of incidents where the children were around.  Everyone I was around we were pretty much high school age….I didn’t consider myself as being a child…We had a cause and if the understanding of that cause was truly understood then you would not hear one of the people that partake with the situation have any regrets about the situation….[Y]ou would leave… [from a demonstration] with that hope and that hope would be something similar to a willingness to march to hell for. 

Miriam McClendon:  Sophomore at Wenonah High School

My mother went to a mass meeting and I wanted to go and she took me.  And sitting in the audience and listening to Dr. King touched on that mysterious “something” inside me and I knew that they were addressing the race question….I started going to the youth meeting and just became totally engrossed.  

4. March 2013 09:00
by Tammi Sharpe
4 Comments

Voting Rights

4. March 2013 09:00 by Tammi Sharpe | 4 Comments

The Right to Vote was one of the major grievances of the Birmingham Civil Rights Movement.  For many of the foot soldiers it was a key motivation for joining the Movement.  In recognition of the 48th anniversary of Bloody Sunday when protests marched in Selma, AL for the Right to Vote, this week we will provide quotes from foot soldiers on the importance of voting rights and personal stories on how these rights were being violated.  

Deborah Hill  

As a young child I remember both my parents having to take a test to vote.  I remember them discussing having to pay poll taxes and it was like I felt that it was so unfair that you had to take a test as a citizen of this country in order to have the right to vote; this was something that I refused that I would have to do and when the movement came along about civil rights and equal rights for all Americans.  I felt that this was something that I was going to be a part of.  This was just another aspect in my life that I was going to be part about:  bringing about positive change within the Birmingham system.   

 

14. February 2013 09:55
by Tammi Sharpe
0 Comments

Perpetual Outsider

14. February 2013 09:55 by Tammi Sharpe | 0 Comments

Could I be labeled as an “outsider” today in my own country?  After close to 18 years of international work on human rights issues, I’m back in the United States (U.S.) examining historical human rights violations against African-Americans to learn lessons on how to promote human rights.  As I’m critically looking at why it took Americans hundreds of years to end slavery and another hundred years to end segregation, I’m worrying that my own compatriots might call me an “outsider” as a means to refute the critique I am beginning to develop. 

I’ve been called the equivalent of outsider in foreign countries, but I never thought I could hear it in my own country.  No one has called me an outsider.  But my sixth sense along with advice of Southern friends indicates that I need to tread carefully.  Maybe my sensitivity relates to years of working overseas or maybe I’ve delved so deeply into the past that I am blurring the lines between the past and the present.  Yet, something suggests that this history is still sensitive and that this moniker could still be used as a means to counter critique.

Admittedly, I am not in my hometown.  But, I am not sure if I would be recognized as a local anywhere.  My roots run deep on the Eastern Shore of Maryland, which is my family base.  I, however, outside of holidays and summer vacations, have never lived in this town.  I grew up in New York State, but I essentially left this town immediately after high school.  All other residences have been short-term.

I chose my new residence in Alabama for its historical relevance to the U.S. struggle for racial equality.  Whereas in other countries I am working on issues remotely related to me, I am now examining issues that directly affect my national identity as an American.  And as I might take pride in the founding ideals of this country or the U.S.’ engagement in World War II to fight fascism, I feel equally a need to be humbled by the atrocities committed in this country, including slavery and segregation.   

What becomes tricky is the reality that these atrocities are primarily associated with the Deep South.  And the linkages between national, state, and city history may not be automatically appreciated when it concerns controversial issues.  Something internal tells me to explain that I originate from a former slave state and a state that legalized segregation.  That something also advises me to declare that I am a great granddaughter of a former slave owner and a granddaughter of those who stood on the sidelines as segregation was upheld.  But do I need to raise these associations to feel a sense of responsibility for the atrocities committed in my own country?  Isn’t simply being an American sufficient? 

Dr. King, even as a Southern African-American, battled similar sentiments.  He begins his famed “Letter from Birmingham Jail” by countering criticism of the “outsiders coming in.”  Birminghamians were not the only people to use this moniker.  It was pervasive.  I heard it growing up.  My grandmother invokes this name to explain what happened in Cambridge, Maryland in 1963.   

Like Dr. King in Birmingham, AL, those outsiders in Cambridge were protesting segregation.  While my grandmother contends that “things were fine” before the “outsiders” arrived, the fact is, nine years after the Supreme Court decision on Brown versus Board of Education, the local community had not integrated the schools.  With the arrival of the outsiders a quiet small town suddenly became a scene of repeated protests and sit-ins with incidents of violent white resistance.  While, like my grandmother, I regret the violence that erupted, and I do appreciate the trauma this small town endured, I nonetheless, unlike my grandmother, feel that the outsiders were justified in coming to Cambridge. Outsiders had a right to demonstrate for change.

Dr. King eloquently argued this point in his letter:  “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.  We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny.  Whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly.”  I take solace in these words.  These words defend why I am looking at the history of the “Deep South” as it relates to my national identity as well as family identity.  I could also easily invoke these words in my work overseas. 

President Kennedy’s speech announcing his intentions to call on Congress to pass civil rights legislation in June 1963 further justifies my research.  President Kennedy, with specific reference to Alabama, saw resistance to segregation as “a moral crisis” for the country.  He recognized that racial discrimination was pervasive throughout the country and that the remedy entailed more than just government action:  “It is time to act in the Congress, in your State and local legislative body and, above all, in all of our daily lives…. [L]egislation, I repeat, cannot solve this problem alone.  It must be solved in the homes of every American in every community across our country.” 

As Cambridge illustrates, President Kennedy and Dr. King’s words were not readily received.  Martial law in Cambridge was declared three days after the President’s speech.  It would be unfair to paint the resistance as simply deep-rooted prejudices.  I am actually baffled by my grandmother’s objection to the outsiders’ engagement.  She was not a white supremacist, and in small ways, such as giving credit equally to black and white customers at the family country store, she defied the system.  But if she believed that “things were fine” before the outsiders came, she did not fully appreciate the injustice of segregation.  Maybe the trauma of the events has overshadowed her objectivity.  However, those outside agitators were instrumental in ending segregation throughout the U.S. 

So, maybe these monikers should, instead, be seen as positives instead of negatives. And, until I become perceived as a local, I guess I will remain an outsider.  Possibly I will be an outsider for perpetuity.  Perceptions of who is a local are subjective and even residence and family ties do not confer one’s status as a local. Calling someone an outsider is a defense mechanism to refute criticism.  However, human rights violations are moral issues and we all have a right to speak out.  Maybe, instead of fearing this moniker, I should strive to earn the title outsider. 

9. January 2013 17:00
by Tammi Sharpe
1 Comments

Go Slow / People in Motion

9. January 2013 17:00 by Tammi Sharpe | 1 Comments

 

Click here to download full report: ACMHR1966.pdf (8.68 mb)

Go Slow / People in Motion

“Go slow” a figurative phrase capturing resistance to the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and ‘60s.  In 1963, Nina Simone sang “Mississippi Goddam” and conveyed the frustrations associated with this phrase.  Through powerful lyrics about “hound dogs on my trail, [and] school children sitting in jail” she conjures potent resistance that was solidifying in response to African-Americans’ growing demands for civil rights.  By asserting that “me and my people are just about due” Ms. Simone alludes to the perpetuity of the call from those who “keep on saying go slow.”  As she enumerates the goals of the Movement—desegregation, mass participation, unification, and equality—a repeating chorus line of “too slow” can be heard in the background, calling into question the prudence of the advice–“Go slow.”    

In 1966, the Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights (ACMHR) evoked these same connotations in a booklet entitled “People in Motion” documenting their tenth anniversary.  This title, “People in Motion” effectively underscored the magnitude of ACMHR’s achievements through ten years of defying the advice to “go slow.”   A group of African American Ministers created the ACMHR in 1956 after Alabama officials outlawed the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) from operating in the state.  ACMHR continued the struggle to eliminate African-Americans’ status as second-class citizens.  Through a multitude of civil disobedience acts—court cases, petitions, protests, economic boycotts, sit-ins, registering voters—ACMHR advanced civil rights in Birmingham for African-Americans.   Their booklet provides a comprehensive overview of the activities and successes of ACMHR during the crucial period of the Civil Rights Movement in Birmingham (1956-1966).      

The booklet concludes by stating that the Movement, in 1966, stood at a “crossroads” summarizing progress as follows:

When one considers the original demands of the Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights when it formed in 1956, a remarkable number of them have been at least partially achieved.  The buses are desegregated, and so are the parks with the shameful exception of the closed swimming pools.  School segregation has been broken, even though integration is still token.* Public eating places are integrated if one can afford to eat in them; Negro police have been hired, although in token numbers.  At least a few Negroes are working in jobs never open to them before; the bars to Negro voter registration have been torn down. 

And, all important, white police cannot with impunity terrorize and brutalize Negroes on the streets and in their homes as they once could and did in Birmingham.  

But no one here feels the struggle is over or that the perfect society has arrived.  The integration that exists is still token, for the great masses of black people jobs are still non-existent or at the lowest rungs of the economic ladder. 

Reverend Fred Shuttlesworth, the President of ACMHR, donated a copy of this booklet to the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute Archives.  Flip through the report to gain some understanding of the injustices of segregation and the sacrifices—including potential loss of employment, arrest, physical abuse and death—that it took to bring about change.  Then consider this question: 

Since 1966, have we continued to challenge advice to “go slow”? 

* Between 1963 and 1966 more than 250 Black students were attending formerly all-white schools.