18. March 2013 08:27
by Tammi Sharpe

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.  



8. March 2013 09:26
by Tammi Sharpe

Young Female Foot Soldiers of the Civil Rights Movement

8. March 2013 09:26 by Tammi Sharpe | 5 Comments

Youth played a critical role in the Birmingham Civil Rights Movement.  On international women’s day we’d like to highlight the memories of some of the young female foot soldiers who participated in mass meetings and protests. 

Eloise Staples:  Freshman at Parker High School

The moment was so strong and intense and the people were so… 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? 

Danella Jones Bryant:  Parker High School 16 years old

I was spell bound….The mass meetings were where people got together and they talked about getting their rights.  Being able to do the things that they couldn’t do in a non-violent way.  And that really impressed me because I wasn’t into violence.

Audrey Hendricks:  8 years old

[T]he meetings themselves, from what I can remember, was energy.  It was very organized.  I remember times when they would say, ‘If we are going to march tomorrow, if you have any weapons come down and put them on the table.’  And there would be people to come down and put knives on the table and those kinds of things…..[T]here was not any difference in the meetings [for the children versus those for the adults.]  The same kind of thing…there was singing, there was strategizing.  They talked about what would happen if you are going to march.  

Floretta Scruggs Tyson:  Sophomore at Ullman High School

[The day of the protest] 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. 

[The detention] was horrible.  I never want to experience it again….[I]t was terrifying because we were in a real jail where they had real criminals….[we were mixed in with these other prisoners.]  I can really remember the prostitutes…they were really rowdy….they were just cursing and just carrying on and when they were talking they were like right beside our bunk and every time they said something…we were nervous.  (She detained for nine days.)

Emily Thomas Ellis:  Parker High School  (With hundreds of students she marched from the School to the Sixteenth Baptist Church - @2 miles)

Over five or six hundred [students marched from Parker High School to Sixteenth Street Baptist Church.  At the church]  I was so shocked because I had never seen Dr. Martin Luther King before and he was in the pulpit….He said that we were tired of being pushed around.  Tired of riding in the back of the bus.  Tired of not being able to eat at the lunch counters….. Tired of drinking out of the water fountain that says “colored only.”

Miriam McClendon:  Sophomore at Wenonah High School

When we got 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.]

Deborah Hill – High school senior

[Upon arriving downtown] I remember coming into this area near this park being met by fierce dogs and police barricades.  I think about that often, because you know when you think about how policemen are trained to deal in crowds today.  That was unheard of in the ‘60s… There was fear on both sides…..I have always been of the personal opinion that the police helped to exacerbate the level of the temperature of the crowd…..[The police] were all around the park.  You had fire hoses that were aimed at you and those were very forceful.  I mean extremely forceful hoses and the hoses were turned loose on people as well as the dogs….[I]f you came across a certain line, they would turn those dogs on you and those dogs were very vicious.  I remember seeing the gnashing of [the] teeth of the dogs.

They did unleash the water hoses on us.  I remember the power was so powerful from the hose the force was just so overpowering it tore my dress.  We had to jump into a car and I remember the force was so powerful that the car was just rocking from side to side.  We honestly felt that we were going to die.  I had never encountered a force so strong in my life.  I had no idea that the force of water could be so powerful and yes we thought that we were going to die, that we would never see our parents again.  I remember one of the young ladies panicking in the car and she jumped up.  Our thing was that if we held our heads down and they didn’t see us, they would change the direction of the hose from us to someone else and we would be able to get out of the car and eventually get away.  But you know she panicked and we probably had to slap her back to reality to get her back.  But she just knew she was going to die and you never know what you’re going to do until you are faced in a situation such as that.  For many, many years I had kept that in the recesses of my own mind because it was such dangerous times.  I believe that was the closest time I really came to [death.]    

14. February 2013 09:55
by Tammi Sharpe

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. 

21. January 2013 13:44
by Tammi Sharpe

A Leader: A tribute to Dr. Martin Luther King, his fellow leaders and the Birmingham foot soldiers

21. January 2013 13:44 by Tammi Sharpe | 4 Comments


A Leader:  A tribute to Dr. Martin Luther King, his fellow leaders and the Birmingham foot soldiers

Does America currently have a national leader fighting for a just American society like we had in the 1960s?  A leader that, as Binnie Myles said, would make you describe him/her as “the only leader that I can honestly say that I ever followed….If that man said, ‘go to jail,’ I went to jail.  And I was only 16 years at the time…..He stood out for justice and the right thing for all people, not just one.”  A leader, who could inspire you even in your 60s to protest like Emma Young, who had been born in 1902: “I was so enthused….I just love him so because he was teaching us so much.” A leader whom you would call “a parent…as well as a leader” like Mary E. Streeter Perry, who even lost her job for her participation.   In the 1960s, America had a number of such leaders, whose words generated reflection as well as action.

These quotes reflect a common thread that weaves through the hundreds of interviews with foot soldiers that have been conducted by BCRI in order to document the Civil Rights Movement in Birmingham, AL.  In these interviews, foot soldiers describe mass meetings as occasions when thoughtful speakers translated the daily injustices African-Americans suffered into a discourse on rights and outlined a democratic means to obtain those rights.  These speakers’ rhetoric inspired thousands of foot soldiers to fill Birmingham’s streets in protest, to face fire hoses and dogs, and to go to jail.

Foot soldiers cite an array of inspirational speakers, such as Reverend Shuttlesworth, Andrew Young, James Bevel, Carlton Reese, and Reverend Abernathy.  And as many would suspect, Dr. King features prominently in the interviews.  The above quotes were specifically referencing Dr. King.  As evidenced by the passage of some thirty years after the protests when these interviews were conducted, Dr. King’s leadership has had enduring impact.  This most clearly come through in Mallory Coats interview.  At the age of 12 years, Mallory Coats was selected from among his fellow students to read the Emancipation Proclamation at an annual event held on New Year’s Day and at which Dr. King was the guest speaker.

“I had heard of Dr. King and the boycott of ’55 so he was not a stranger to me.  But, when I saw the policemen and all the crowds and all the people standing outside of the church, I just said to myself, ‘Dad, can we go home....?’ He said, ‘okay, you’re here, you’re going and you will do well.  No turning around.’  So, what could I do?  I got up, went on the stage and was sitting two persons from Dr. King and he gave his great address and I just sat there amazed.  That’s the first really Black person of renowned stature I had ever been [in] the company of.  I forgot about my speech.  I’m thinking wouldn’t it be great to be someone like that, to stand before people and demand their attention, to be so articulate and all that.  When it was my time on the program, I went through it and he [Dr. King] presented me this book….It’s a Negro history book and Langston Hughes was the writer of this book and his autograph is in it.  I made a promise to myself about a week after this to use this book to encourage black kids…to read.  And, so what I would do, especially when I was teaching…I would tell them [the black male students] the story of this book.  I said, “You know, I got a chance to meet one of the world’s greatest men and shake [his] hand.”  And they would say, “Who?”  I said, “Dr. Martin Luther King and I was just in the 6th grade.  And, I got that experience because I could read….You can see it’s old and has been used, but I made a promise to myself a long time ago that when it was time, I would use this book.  One of the reasons I believe I got a masters in reading was because I understood as a black male, it is so important that black males learn to read adequately…..This book has been something that has not lost its glamour or thrust with me at all.  I’ve gotten many awards, but this is the most precious thing I’ve ever received because of the spirit in which it was given and in the time that it was given….I was in the midst of the struggle and I found it to be encouraging.” 

Like these foot soldiers many Americans can still be awed by Dr. King’s eloquence.  His words can still stir our desires for a more just society.  The words of the foot soldiers, in addition to honoring Dr. King, are also inspiration.  These few foot soldiers are representative of thousands whose sacrifices substantially changed a culture of silence and conformity.  As we commemorate the legacy of Dr. King and the army of foot soldiers who made up the Civil Rights Movement, we may also wish to reflect in their honor on what more is needed to fully “transform the jangling discords of our nation into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood.”**  


*Starting in 1994 the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute began interviewing the foot soldiers of the Birmingham Civil Rights Movement as part of its Oral History Project.  Interviewees provide first hand insights on the Movement including becoming conscious of civil rights and equality, the organization and the philosophy behind the Movement, and personal reflections of participation some 30 years later.  

** King, M. L., “I Have a Dream”, March on Washington, Washington, D.C., 1963


15. January 2013 06:50
by Tammi Sharpe

"America's Challenge: Fulfilling the Dream"

15. January 2013 06:50 by Tammi Sharpe | 0 Comments

In June 1968, close to five years after Dr. Martin Luther King gave his speech, “I have a dream” in Washington, D.C., Reverend Fred Shuttlesworth gave a speech in Bay City, Michigan, titled “America’s Challenge:  Fulfilling the Dream.”   A copy of this speech is among the various items donated by Reverend Shuttlesworth to the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute.  As the leader of the civil rights movement in Birmingham, Reverend Shuttlesworth worked closely with Dr. King from 1955 till his death in 1968.   Reverend Shuttlesworth collaborated with Dr. King in an infinite number of ways, key amongst are the Montgomery bus boycott, the founding of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, the March on Washington, and protests in Birmingham including the one that resulted in Dr. King’s arrest in 1963 during which Dr. King wrote the famed “Letter from Birmingham Jail.”  From this close collaboration, Reverend Shuttlesworth gained some keen insights  and was intimately familiar with Dr. King’s thinking.  

Reverend Shuttlesworth’s speech, “America’s Challenge: Fulfilling the Dream,” provides not only a reflection on the meaning of Dr. King’s word but also an assessment of what followed in the five years after the speech.  In 1968 Reverend Shuttlesworth did not believe that the “dream” had been realized.  But at the same time he appreciated that he was speaking at a time of great change and progress.  In this speech, Reverend Shuttlesworth comments on the history of the civil rights movement highlighting a couple of major achievements, namely the passage of the Civil Rights Act and re-enfranchisement of African Americans.  He also discusses the essence of Dr. King’s “dream” as one of a tolerant society and economic and social justice. 

With the upcoming 50th Anniversary of Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream” speech and in remembrance of Dr. King this January, Reverend Shuttlesworth’s words provide a useful guide to reflect on progress in realizing this “dream” in the last 45 years.   In some aspects, it is a speech that could be read today. 

“America’s Challenge:  Fulfilling the Dream”

There can no longer be any blinking of the fact that we are in the midst of a social and moral revolution in this land.


For unnumbered years America has allowed injustice to reign unchecked throughout the fabric of its whole life.  In the South there were open and flagrant violations against Blacks, poor Whites, and other minorities.  In the North there were the insidious, and many times, invisible workings of discrimination which were harder to see, but had the same chilling effect of killing hopes, shattering dreams, and stifling initiative.


Then in 1955, under the leadership of a young prophet named Martin Luther King, Jr., Negroes moved to challenge the conscience of this nation by non-violent demonstrations.  It is now history – the battles of Montgomery, Alabama, Albany, Georgia, Birmingham, Alabama, which gave us the Civil Rights Bill, and Selma, Alabama, which gave Negroes the right to vote.  There was the historic 1963 March on Washington, joined in by white and black, rich and poor, high and low, in which this modern Moses spoke of his Dream for America.  His dream was not blacks overcoming whites or even the poor overcoming the rich; rather blacks and whites working together, those in power and with affluence helping to educate and lift the standards of the poor; and that somehow our land would seek to turn its face and energies from war and build here on these shores a heaven, a Beloved city, a brother hood-where man would become his brother’s keeper instead of his brother’s killer.

The Dreamer is dead but he lives in his dreams because they are really the dreams of America.  They are the dreams of hope, of fulfillment, of creativity, of richness of character and life, of peaceful protest against any and all injustices, of having enough and a little to spare, of every man looking out for his brother and standing with his brother, of every man looking into his own heart and overcoming by the disposition of love the violence therein.  This should be your dream; this is America’s Challenge. 

Dr. King and his workers dreamed of a society that could overcome its own violent and racist tendencies.  For it is a terrible violence that keeps men from becoming their best selves by whatever means it is accomplished.  It is violence that men may be born in a society, grow up within it and learn that there is really no place in society for them.  It is violence that some… in our society can brag of wall-to-wall carpets while so many complain of wall-to-wall roaches and rats.  It is violence that the education system of this land has left so many unprepared for a day of technology and automation.  


Speech Delivered by Reverend Fred L. Shuttlesworth, Bay City, Michigan, Saturday, June 1, 1968

20. December 2012 10:14
by Tammi Sharpe


20. December 2012 10:14 by Tammi Sharpe | 1 Comments

‘Wait!’  With this one word, in his famed “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” in March 1963, Dr. Martin Luther King captures so much of the historical struggle for racial equality in the United States (US).  As far back as the founding of the US, the framers of the Constitution indirectly made a request to slaves to “wait.”  By incorporating compromises into the Constitution, the framers allowed for the continued practice of slavery notwithstanding the assertion in the Declaration of Independence that “all men are created equal.”  The contradiction of the situation was not lost on the founders.   Thomas Jefferson, a framer and the author of the Declaration of Independence, said:  “Nothing is more certainly written in the book of fate than that these people are to be free.”  He also was not naïve on the gravity of this human right violation:  "The whole commerce between master and slave is a perpetual exercise of the most boisterous passions, the most unremitting despotism on the one part, and degrading submissions on the other.”  His words make me query, if not then and not him, when and whom did he think would resolutely tackle slavery?    

It was not the next generation.  It took a few generations and a war for decisive action to be taken.  President Lincoln, by issuing in 1863 the Emancipation Proclamation, decided de-jure for the nation that securing freedom for some four million people, about 13 per-cent of the population, was vital to the future of this nation.   The adoption of the 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments to the U.S. Constitution by the U.S. Congress further endorsed this view, substantively changing the legal framework of this nation.  Abolitionists, who assiduously labored to rectify the human rights violation that was slavery, saw this as a great leap forward. 

Yet, genuine freedom and full citizenship were still not realized.  Instead, segregation, denial of voting rights, lack of access to justice, and forced labor supplanted slavery.  A freed black was not even physically secure: lynching occurred with impunity and men were arbitrarily arrested.    In response, civil rights advocates replaced the abolitionists in the courts, in the media, in the Federal and State Legislatures, and in the street lobbying for change.  Some successes were realized but not until the mid-1960s were practical measures put in place to protect the human rights articulated in the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments for African Americans.   Dr. King’s “wait” captures the justified frustration and outrage of African Americans being asked for centuries to wait for some of the most basic human rights and dignity as a human being.

“Wait” also illustrates the complexity of upholding human rights.  Dr. King wrote the “Letter from Birmingham Jail” as political and legal structures of segregation were gradually being eradicated but when their termination was far from assured.  He addressed his letter to the white clergy of Birmingham.  This clergy was sympathetic to the cause but desired for protests to be halted to allow for a new local government to be instated.  This can be viewed as a judicious request from their perspective.  New government officials and the structure within which they sat represented  a sort of coup d’état:  a petition calling for a referendum on the type of local government structure had been successfully filed; the referendum had passed and new government officials, who were not rigid segregationist, had been elected.  The clergy wrote to Dr. King with the belief that this new power structure opened up new political and legal opportunities to overturn segregation.  This change of government structure was symbolic of considerable social upheaval within the white community when it came to perceptions of the legitimacy of segregation. 

“Wait,” while inadvertently, also captures the issue of trust and miscommunication between the writer and the receiver and between the larger communities of which they were members.  As indicated by the long history of the struggle for racial equality, asking to further “wait” could be interpreted by those oppressed as insensitivity to the scale of their suffering for centuries.  At the same time, the inability of the nation to rectify the paradox between the founding equality principles of this country and the overt practice of inequality throughout these centuries signifies the importance of the general public’s notions of legitimate laws and practices as well as the enormity of changing perceptions of what is legitimate.  This appears to have been the reality with which the clergy was grappling.  Reportedly, they were too ill at ease over the letter to have responded. 

As history shows, protests in downtown Birmingham in the Spring of 1963 were not halted.  While not immediately, they were successful in overturning segregation.  What we cannot resolutely know is whether passivism could have also worked.