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.]