THE CIVIL RIGHTS MOVEMENT
History weaves its silent strands around us, around and around us until we are part of its fabric. Later we wonder, “When did that happen? How did it happen?” History happens while we’re living our lives: our everyday lives of going to school, going to work, going to the store, giving and taking, laughing and crying, dreaming and doing.
The strands of history wove their way into the flowering spring of that southern steel city, Birmingham, Alabama, in 1963, where two worlds existed: one for Negroes limited by invisible barriers, and one for whites, unaware that the barriers also limited them. It was a very different time, a time when whites and blacks lived completely separate lives, knowing nothing about the other’s reality, much less their beliefs, hopes, and dreams. And so into the texture of life in Alabama were woven strands of mistrust, fear, and hatred: a perfect place for the civil rights movement to rip forth.
The civil rights movement hadn’t really started with Rosa Parks, although she did get the nation’s attention when she was simply so tired she didn’t give up her seat on the bus in Montgomery, Alabama. But that had been eight years before. Eight years, and what had been accomplished since then? Sit-ins, beatings, attacks on the Freedom Riders, riots. Even Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. had to admit there was not the hoped-for progress, especially after his failure to attract national attention and momentum for the Movement in Albany, Georgia, in the summer of 1962.
By April 1963, King and several other members of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference had developed a plan, and Birmingham was at the center. Wyatt Tee Walker, one of the founders of SCLC, thought a large nonviolent movement with direct action against the downtown businesses and government offices would provoke officials and law enforcement to such a strong reaction that the media would be attracted to their cause. King told them, “If we fill the jails with demonstrators, the focus of the country will be on Birmingham. How could the city leaders refuse to negotiate if that works?” But that didn’t happen, and King began to despair.
Good Friday morning dawned overcast and humid. Indecision about what to do next filled the conference room. Should they march, knowing they would be arrested for parading without a permit? Possible bail money was drying up. Would it help or hinder the Movement to have the leaders and the few adult marchers in jail? Opinion shifted back and forth as tensions mounted. Finally, Dr. King and Rev. Abernathy appeared in their denim “work clothes.” They would march. Rev. Shuttlesworth joined them for the first part of the walk which, of course, led to arrest and jail.
Eight days passed before Dr. King was released, yet even now, with King among them, Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth was still worried. Although he acknowledged that Dr. King’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail” was getting some national attention, the Movement hadn’t attracted the boost they had hoped for. What was it gonna take? he wondered as they met for a strategy session in Room 30 of the Gaston Motel not far from the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham. His fingers drummed the table, as his slim frame slouched in the chair. I’m the one that encouraged Martin to come down here. I know how disappointing his push in Georgia was. He needs something big to happen. We haven’t had a big success since Rosa Parks and the bus boycott in Montgomery. If he could make a change in Birmingham, why, that would make a huge difference what with Birmingham being the most racist place in America. We’ve gotten the media down here, but we’re gonna lose them soon. We’ve got to do something!
Rev. Shuttlesworth thought back to the mass meetings they had been having for several weeks, the meetings that were to stir the adults into marching with Dr. King. Why wouldn’t they march? Of course I know the answer, and I can’t fault them. Lord, the atrocities we’ve seen and endured.
“Martin,” he began, “think about what life’s been like for us here in Birmingham. How many times has the Klan bombed Bethel Baptist, my own church for heaven’s sake, and my home when I’ve tried to desegregate things? Why do they call it ‘Bombingham’—fifty unsolved bombings of our people in the last twenty years? Remember what the mob did to me when I took the children to desegregate Phillips High School? They almost killed me, man.” He looked around the table. The men’s stubbled faces and baggy, shadowed eyes were testimony to the ordeal they all felt.
Dr. King nodded solemnly. “I know. I know,” he said. His fingers tapped against the white ceramic mug that held cold, bitter coffee.
“And what happened at the meeting with our folk last night, let me ask you that? We’re not gonna get the adults, Martin, and that’s a fact. They’re too frightened.”
They both sat silently, remembering the emotional meeting with a group of adults the previous evening.
“Dr. King,” one man stood, dressed in a worn but well-ironed blue shirt and khaki pants, “We understand what y’all wanna do here, but look at it for us. You come and get things all stirred up, then y’all go away, and we’re left with the mess; no jobs, the Klan after any a’ us that marched. What you think’s gonna happen to us then?” He sat down, a frown on his dark, lined face.
“I do understand, but y’all need to look at the big picture, what marching will accomplish,” Dr. King responded.
A woman jumped up and shook her finger at Dr. King. “The big picture? Let me tell you something. The ‘big picture’ is what we made for our ownselves here. We keep our children safe, Dr. King. We keep our neighborhoods close-knit so we watch over everybody’s children. Our churches, our schools, our neighborhoods—they be the center of our lives. We built up our own businesses on Fourth Avenue so our children don’t need never to go downtown and find out the hard way how the whites treat us. We look out for all the children as long as we can. And we, grown-ups, we walk the straight line so we don’t agitate no whites. We do our work, we never look them in the eye, we never ’spect them to call us Miz or Mister, and we stay quiet. We know what we got to do to survive.” Her voice rose even louder, her hands punctuating every word. “And y’all come here, stirring trouble, causing riots, and who’s gonna get hurt? Us. We lose our jobs, or our houses, or even our lives, Dr. King. And that’s the ‘big picture.’” She sat down to a chorus of amens and “tell it, Sister.”
Dr. King held up a conciliatory hand. “Sisters and Brothers, I know what you go through down here. We walk the same path. But we have to end it. We have to get the nation to pay attention, to get Washington to pay attention, so we can have legislation that will change things. Keeping your children close and safe is good, but they are not free. It’s freedom we need to experience life fully, to be all we can be, to have the jobs we deserve.”
Dr. King had shared all the reasons for marching: how by filling the jail the world would see how bad things were in the South, and legislation would be enacted to bring about change; how the black schools didn’t have nearly the resources of the white schools; how black teachers were paid only 60 percent of what white teachers made; how the job market could open up with integration; how limited the world was for blacks in the South. But it didn’t matter. The adults wanted no part of marching, and that evening’s meeting convinced the leaders.
The new man in the group, Rev. James Bevel, broke the lengthening silence and spoke up. “You called me here, Martin; now why won’t you listen to my plan?” His piercing, dark eyes held Dr. King’s gaze for a moment, as if the fire in them could sear through Dr. King’s reluctance.
Dr. King shook his head. “I’m listening, James, but I can’t go along with you. Certainly we can use the help of the students from Miles College to march with us, but not the younger children. It could be dangerous.”
“Dangerous?” exclaimed Rev. Abernathy. “Of course, it’s dangerous, Martin. It’s dangerous for all of us every day.”
“That’s no reason to expose children to the risk.”
Bevel leaned forward with intensity. “You want to fill the jails, don’t you? I can guarantee hundreds, thousands of kids. You want to get TV coverage, don’t you? I can’t think of a better way. This’ll work, Martin. I’m sure of it.”
Rev. Shuttlesworth thought about Bull Connor, the Commissioner of Public Safety, whose hatred against blacks was legendary. Would he take action against children? Rev. Shuttlesworth couldn’t answer that. But now is the time. I’ve been working since the ’50s, and are we any better off today? No. We’ve got Martin here. We’ve got the media coverage. Let’s move with it. Sure, I was hesitant to bring in Bevel with his reputation as a hothead, but he was doing a great job in Mississippi getting voter registration. He does get results. We’re all members of SCLC, and we’re all working for the same thing.
Rev. Shuttlesworth put his hand on Dr. King’s arm. “Let’s listen to what James has to say. You’ve been calling this ‘Project C’ for confrontation. Now is the time for that confrontation, Martin.”
Rev. Bevel acknowledged Shuttlesworth’s support with a nod. “Look at who’s the most responsive at our evening meetings. These kids are fired up.” Bevel continued, “They’re ready, and we need them.”
Dr. King nodded reluctantly. His thoughts turned to the children, how naïve they were, how they loved the idea of keeping their possibly marching a secret from the grown-up world. At the last mass meeting when he’d called for those who were willing to march with him to stand up, it was the young people who had stood. They would march, he knew, but any resulting violence would shatter their innocence once and forever. Could he allow that?
The next few days and nights were even more intense as Dr. King anguished and prayed. Rev. James Bevel preached to and coaxed the young people. Shelley “the Playboy” Stewart and “Tall Paul” Dudley White, popular black DJs on radio station WENN, urged the kids on with coded words.
Negro kids knew that when Shelley Stewart gave his jive talk about having a party or a picnic, he was really talking about marching for the Movement. They had come to identify certain songs with what they were going to do, and all this time parents and other adults were kept in the dark about the hidden meanings. School and athletic student leaders slipped away to lunch meetings at the Gaston Motel with Rev. Bevel to learn how to secretly spread the word. Little cards that could be hidden from adults were passed out saying “Fight for freedom. Then go to school.” Their parents knew the DJs had started talking to the young people about the injustices in their world, but they had other things on their minds, and so they missed the warning flags of what was to come.
Tensions, excitement, determination, and fear grew as the warp and weft wove together forming the final tapestry.
Finally, there were the children. And history happened.