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.

Comments (5) -

I'm excited to discover your Web site. These are wonderful stories from that tumultuous year - straight from the mouths of the student-foot soldiers. Perhaps you've seen the new Web site I launched March 28 - www.KidsInBirmingham1963.org. I will be visiting Birmingham April 12-15, looking for more former "kids" who may want to share stories like these on our site. Or maybe we can figure out a good way to link our sites. Do email me, please, if we might meet this weekend. Best regards, -Ann

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