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.