In early May 1963, several thousand African American schoolchildren left their classrooms and took to the streets of Birmingham, Alabama, one of the nation’s most segregated cities. Their protest against white supremacy was one of the most dramatic moments in America’s long struggle for racial equality. The city’s white leadership ordered the march to be stopped and authorized the use of force. It was impossible not to be shocked and profoundly moved by the photographs and film footage of children blasted by fire hoses, attacked by vicious police dogs, and arrested and jailed. The Children’s March galvanized support for the black freedom struggle worldwide. In the aftermath of the events, tens of thousands of civil rights protesters took to the streets of cities nationwide, including Philadelphia. Inspired by Birmingham’s kids, they demanded “Freedom Now!” The Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. reassured Birmingham’s parents that their children were part of a just cause. “Don’t worry about your children; they are going to be alright. Don’t hold them back if they want to go to jail, for they are not only doing a job for themselves, but for all of America and for all of mankind.” Today, in a world deeply troubled by injustice and violence, we remember and honor and learn from Birmingham’s protesters for “doing a job” for all of humanity. Their brave steps forward in face of terrible violence helped bend the arc of history toward justice and freedom.
Written by Thomas J. Sugrue, Professor of Social and Cultural Analysis and History and Director of the American Studies Program and NYU Collaborative on Global Urbanism, New York University
Birmingham, Alabama, Spring 1963
Martin Luther King, Jr. brought the Southern Christian Leadership Conference to Birmingham, a city he saw as “probably the most segregated city in America.” The plan was for activists to conduct pickets and marches to pressure downtown department stores to change the policy that African Americans could spend their money at the stores, but could not eat at the lunch counters, try on clothing, or use the restrooms. Progress was slow until one of the young lieutenants proposed that the children lead the marches.
For several days in early May 1963, thousands of Birmingham’s children and youth skipped school to march. Facing dogs and firehoses, they sang and clapped as they were led off to jail. Within days, business owners had agreed to the protestors’ modest demands, and the movement was declared a success.
There are those who write history. There are those who make history. There are those who experience history…I don’t know how many of you would be able to write a history book, but you are certainly making history and you are experiencing history, And you will make it possible for the historians of the future to write a marvelous chapter. Never in the history of this nation have so many people been arrested for the cause of freedom and human dignity. ~ Martin Luther King, Jr
view a timeline of children in Birmingham in 1963 at KidsInBirmingham.org
Making Difficult History More Understandable
Because the work portrays a violent episode, a committee of CY staff and CY parents who are educators are developing age-appropriate lessons to help the singers make sense of the violence referenced in the work and understand its historical context. Singers will also hear from local Civil Rights leaders, such as Kenneth Salaam, nicknamed “Freedom Smitty,” about the part Freedom songs played in Civil Rights protests. He will be joined by other members of the Cecil B. Moore Freedom Fighters, who helped lead the Civil Rights Movement in Philadelphia. Commonwealth Youthchoirs, the parent organization of Keystone State Boychoir, Pennsylvania Girlchoir, and Find Your Instrument!, received its first National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) grant for this intergenerational project.