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.  

7. March 2013 14:52
by Tammi Sharpe
0 Comments

Connecting with the Past

7. March 2013 14:52 by Tammi Sharpe | 0 Comments

It is one of those times when I get to say “I was there” at the Commemoration of Bloody Sunday.  What was the value of this day?  Are we unconstructively dredging up racist history as queried in an al.com article*?  I’d say no.  

For me it was an opportunity to reflect on the Civil Rights Movement:  an extraordinary time in American history when masses, hundreds of thousands of people came together to non-violently demonstrate for their rights and their resolve stayed firm for a decade.  Imagine a decade of continuous protesting.  And, as Vice President Biden stated, those demonstrators had “courage.”  This is not an inflated compliment.  We, all Americans—African-American, White, Hispanic, Asian, Native American, Arab-American—should reflect on the violent resistance these protesters faced down in order to obtain one of the most fundamental right of a democracy, the right to vote.  Their battle for this right alongside other basic civil and human rights—security, protection of the law, freedom of expression, freedom of movement--and simple basic human dignity—to enter through the front of the bus, to use a public bathroom, to share a public water fountain with other citizens—was democracy in action. 

In 1958 Reverend Shuttlesworth stated “Democracy is on trial.”  This was in the early years of the Civil Rights Movement but the trial had started way before the 1950s.  The trial began with the founding of this country when only white male property owners had the right to vote.  This trial was on-going during the U.S. Civil War when some 4 million people, the majority of which had been born in the U.S., were enslaved.  This trial could be seen during World War II when the U.S. fought against the idea of an Aryan supreme race while white supremacy flourished throughout the U.S.   This trial continues today.  As Attorney General Holder stated “progress has indeed been made… [but] let us challenge each other to aim higher.”  Herein lies the importance of recalling this history.  We remain citizens in a democracy and as such we need to be aware of our rights and we need to remain vigilant on ensuring these rights are upheld.  This is our civic duty. 

Democratic structures are in place, but as witnessed in the past and today these structures by themselves do not uphold our rights.  We must engage.  All the speakers took note of the on-going Supreme Court’s review of the Voting Rights Act (VRA).  Throughout the afternoon protestors repeated the chant “Section 5 must stay alive.”  The Senior Counsel for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), Debo Agegbile, who argued against the constitutional challenge to the VRA before the Supreme Court, strongly argued that “the right to vote cannot be abridged.”  Al Sharpton remarked that today is “not a commemoration.  This is a continuation.”

Thus, I go back to the question of the al.com article about “dredging up” a racist past and one that I have heard before.  I do believe it is necessary.  It is too easy to see and only understand what directly affects us.  One can see this in the history of the Civil Rights Movement.  Not all whites were white supremacist.  Some joined the struggle, but many stood on the sidelines and in doing so they empowered the white supremacists.  Remembering the Civil Rights Movement should remind us of our civic responsibilities of knowing our rights, and speaking out for our rights as well as those of all Americans.  If more of our ancestors had truly reflected and acted on the injustices of segregation and slavery, maybe it would not have taken us centuries to correct these wrongs.  Lets not go backwards. 

 

* http://blog.al.com/montgomery/2013/03/selmas_bloody_sunday_annual_co.html  

6. March 2013 10:47
by Tammi Sharpe
4 Comments

“A Voteless People is a Hopeless People”

6. March 2013 10:47 by Tammi Sharpe | 4 Comments

During the course of the 20th century, Alabama native W.C. Patton (1910-1997) became a legendary figure.  A civil rights giant long identified with the struggle for voting rights in the United States (U.S.), Patton was credited with registering over 1.5 million voters in his lifetime. 

Patton’s activism began when he was a student at Alabama State College in Montgomery.  He joined the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) in 1932 remaining active as a volunteer throughout the Great Depression and World War II.  His activism contributed to the local branch of NAACP being recognized as the “most militant and outstanding” branch in the country. 

In 1947 Patton became the President of the Alabama State Conference of Branches of NAACP.  Throughout his career, Patton directed multiple voter registration efforts for NAACP.  An early campaign slogan used to encourage participation in the political process was “A Voteless People is a Hopeless People.”  He was known for saying “My job was to incite people to become registered voters.”  This entailed keeping the books open till midnight and going into poolrooms. 

Patton also steered the organization’s efforts to overturn discriminatory voting legislation, namely the Boswell Amendment, which was passed in 1946.  This Amendment required would-be voters to “…understand and explain any article of the Constitution of the United States…”  Patton raised $15,000 for “Operation Suffrage” to challenge this Amendment in court.  In 1949 in the case of Davis v. Schell, the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Alabama declared the Boswell Amendment unconstitutional.  The lawsuit, filed by the Mobile Voters’ and Veterans’ League, was part of “Operation Suffrage” headed by Patton. 

The defeat of the Boswell Amendment, however, did not halt efforts to impede African-Americans from voting.  In 1951 members of the Alabama Legislature passed the Bonner Amendment, which required that potential voters be deemed “of good moral character” by local boards of registrars.  In 1957 the Alabama Legislature redistricted Macon County as a means to exclude all but a handful of African-American voters from city elections.  In response to the redistricting NAACP filed Gomillion v. Lightfoot on which, in 1960, the U.S. Supreme Court decided that this redistricting violated the Fifteenth Amendment.

As if he foresaw the future struggle for voting rights in Alabama-including the State Government’s 1956 decision to ban the NAACP from operating-Patton organized the Alabama State Coordinating Association for Registration and Voting in 1952.  Its office was on the 9th floor of Birmingham’s Masonic Temple Building; a photo of the office’s door is found above.  The NAACP was not re-permitted to incorporate and operate in Alabama again till 1964.  

When Patton retired from the NAACP in 1979, he shifted full time focus to his home state and city.  Holding the reins of dozens of cooperating grassroots organizations, he coordinated voter registration campaigns, economic development initiatives, and community relations efforts.  He worked until his passing in Birmingham in 1997. 

Patton’s voting rights crusade was rooted in hope.  He believed in the promise of participatory democracy.  He acted with courage, undaunted by the murder of fellow activists*.  He toiled to help Americans connect voting with education, housing, healthcare and economic opportunity.  The struggle for voting rights continues today, but we can take hope in the story of W.C. Patton, a foot soldier for justice. 

* 1951 Harry T. Moore, President of the Florida Conference of Branches of the NAACP and his wife Harriette Moore; 1956 Reverend George Lee, President of the Belzoni Mississippi Chapter of the NAACP; 1961 Herbert Lee, voter registration activist in Mississippi; 1963 Medgar Evers NAACP leader in Mississippi; 1964 Louis Allen, James Chaney, Michael Schwerner and Andrew Goodman, voter registration activists in Mississippi; 1965 Jimmie Lee Jackson and Viola Liuzzo, voter registration activists in Alabama; and 1966 Vernon Dahmer, voter registration activist in Mississippi.   

 

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.   

 

20. February 2013 11:33
by Tammi Sharpe
0 Comments

Democracy, Freedom, Civic Duty, Equality

20. February 2013 11:33 by Tammi Sharpe | 0 Comments

To access the website: http://bcri.org/index.html 

A unique component to the 1963 protests in Birmingham was the engagement of young people.  It became known as the Children’s March and enabled the Civil Rights Movement to fulfill one of Ghandi’s goals for non-violent protests--to fill the jails.  In May 1963 thousands were arrested resulting in the city having to identify makeshift detention centers.  A key ingredient of the success was the participation of young people.  Some, including Malcolm X, were critical of the youth’s engagement, primarily for fear for their safety.  Valid concerns, particularly as dogs were unleashed and fire hoses were brought to bear down on the protesters.  

But as best articulated by these young Foot Soldiers, you can gain an appreciation for their right to participate as well as their right to freedom of expression.  Their explanations provide some valuable insights on the meanings of democracy, freedom, civic duties and equality. 

Robert Simpson:  Junior at Ullman High School

We didn’t know as far as what is freedom or voting or things like that.  They [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 starting 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:  Senior at Western Olin

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.  

Eloise Staples:  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.

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. 

Bernard Johnson:  Senior at Western Olin High

[I]n recent times I have heard various opinions about that [children being misled 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 there [from a demonstration] with that hope and that hope would be something similar to a willingness to march to hell for.

Dorothy Cotton- Key member of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and one of the youth trainers on non-violence  

 [A former foot soldier who was a] youngster at the time, [said it well].  [H]e said ‘I got involved as a teenager because I had to.  I got involved because I would have felt, and did feel so left out of what was happening until I got involved.’….[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.