Home ♃ Recent Stories ☄ How May Became Turning Point in Birmingham’s 1963 Civil Rights Movement

How May Became Turning Point in Birmingham’s 1963 Civil Rights Movement

Police officers arresting young Civil Rights demonstrators during the Children's Crusade in Birmingham, Alabama. (Alabama Department of Archives and History. Donated by Alabama Media Group. Photo by Norman Dean)

By Barnett Wright

The Birmingham Times

This story is part of a series of articles, “Bending Toward Justice,” focusing on the 60th anniversary of events that took place in Birmingham during 1963 that changed the face of the city, and the world, in the ongoing struggle for equality and human rights. The series name is a reference to a quote by the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.: “Let us realize the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice.” The series will continue through 2023.

The first week of the month of May in 1963 would become one of the most important chapters in the Civil Rights Movement. Students from Birmingham elementary schools and nearby Miles College 60 years ago helped draw concessions from the city’s white power structure and lead to loosening segregation in the city.

Those student-led marches were part of a Demonstration Day, D-Day-later named The Children’s Crusade-strategy initiated by leaders of the [Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC)]. The belief was that a mass infusion of students would be crucial to the success of any march in Birmingham. The students would be more cohesive and enthusiastic than some older adults.

The Rev. James Bevel, a 24-year-old preacher and a participant in several Civil Rights organizations, including the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and the SCLC, had named Thursday, May 2, “D-Day” and Friday, May 3, “Double D-Day” in Birmingham.

On Thursday, May 2, children, most school ­aged, began the Movement’s Children’s Crusade, by demonstrating en masse against the Birmingham Police Department and Public Safety Commissioner Bull Connor. Nearly 1,000 students gathered and moved east on Sixth Avenue and 17th and 18th streets. Ten of the groups converged on City Hall from all directions.

Most of these young people were arrested in groups ranging in size from 30 to 60. When the front doors opened to the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church shortly after 1 p.m., 50 teenagers—including James W. Stewart, a student at Ullman High School—emerged two abreast. The police officers stationed near the church gave notice of the court injunction against demonstrations, warned of arrest, and started loading the teens into paddy wagons.

“We were crammed into the paddy wagons that were meant to hold maybe eight people at the most, two in the four cubicles that they had,” Stewart told Horace Huntley for the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute Oral History Project in 2003. “They crammed three or four of us into one cubicle, and they continued to press the door until they got it shut and locked. I was fifteen then.”

While the paddy wagon was an experience Stewart said he was even more shocked by treatment in the jail.

“They put us in a holding facility that maybe should have held thirty people, and this was an empty room,” Stewart told Huntley. “They put between 300 and 400 boys in the same room. There were so many people in that room that we had to sleep in shifts. Certain ones of us would lie down on the floor and try to sleep, and the rest of us stood around the walls or sat in the windowsills so that they could sleep.

“And when we couldn’t stand any longer, we would kick them and arouse them and have them stand up, and then we would sleep. And this went on for the full four days I was in there. The toilet facilities were deplorable. At the end of this room there were five toilet seats, and that’s how you went to the bathroom. You went to the bathroom in front of between 300 and 400 hundred people.”

Stewart remembered that he was part of the first wave of students to leave the church on D-Day. Shortly after his group, a second double line of marchers came out of the church’s front doors. They were followed by another and another. The police called in more paddy wagons and when that wasn’t enough, asked the Jefferson County Sheriff to send in deputies.

On Friday, May 3, Bevel and one of Dr. King’s top aides, Andrew Young, led even more students out of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church, accompanied by the sounds of mass praying and singing and responsive chanting. More than an estimated 1,500 youngsters were absent from school that day. At 10 a.m., the students converged on Sixteenth Street Baptist and began filing out around 1 p.m. The Birmingham News reported that after two diversionary marches went west of the park, about 50 teenagers started marching toward the downtown area.

“Here They Come”

Mayor Art Hanes, still acting in his role with the city commission despite an earlier court ruling that he no longer held the position, sporting a straw hat and standing at an intersection with Connor and a dozen cops, turned to Connor and said, “Here they come.”

Firemen earlier had reported that the water hose pressure was 50 to 100 pounds per inch. They turned the hoses on full blast and aimed directly at the youngsters, several of whom were skinned up as they skidded down the gutters under the intense water pressure.

Carolyn Maull McKinstry, then a 15-year-old Parker High School student, vividly recalled the force of the water from the fire hoses.

“The water hoses hurt a lot. I was hit with the water hose … running from water. I had a navy-blue sweater on. The water tore a big hole in my sweater and swiped part of my hair off on that side. I just remember the sting and the pain on my face. It was very painful, and you couldn’t escape. There were a few points where we were trying to stand up and hold onto a wall. It was just a terrific pain from the force.”

Another teen at the time Annetta Streeter Gary also recalled the incident.

“We went down to Sixteenth Street Baptist Church. We went out in groups. As soon as one group cleared, then another group would go … The idea was that they were not going to be able to handle all of us. They did not have enough police to stop us. Kelly Ingram Park, as far as you could see, was just people everywhere, which was a difference because, like I said, where we first started, the first couple of demonstrations that I took part in, there were 15 to 20 people. This time, as we came out and we had our signs and all, I remember that I started crying when I looked up and saw all of the people. I guess it was just the idea of what was about to take place, the things that we had heard about, that Dr. [Martin Luther King Jr.] had talked about, how the Movement was moving forward. It was just overwhelming.”

The Double D-Day students were older, mostly teenagers, than the D-Day kids. A couple of the decoy columns walked right around a policeman who had ordered them to halt. The main group of young people was singing as they headed down Fifth Avenue North to 17th Street­ to the threshold of what was considered “white Birmingham.”

On their right were more than 200 Black adult spectators. On their left, a crowd was gathering among the elms of Kelly Ingram Park. The marchers hesitated. The entire Black district around Sixteenth Street Baptist was blockaded with police lines, squad cars, fire trucks. Fireman stood next to their rigs, sweating in their dun-colored slickers. “Do not cross,” Connor intoned. “If you come any further, we will turn the fire hoses on you.”

Sixty young protestors were arrested in the first wave of demonstrations in or near Kelly Ingram Park. Several were attacked by police dogs. Bystanders threw bricks and rocks at the policemen and firemen. When the water drove them back, they sneaked into buildings so they could lob their projectiles from above. A white man was arrested when he attempted to drive his car into demonstrators. Twenty-seven demonstrators knelt and prayed at City Hall, where they were arrested and charged with loitering. Fifty demonstrators were arrested at 20th Street and Second Avenue.

By Saturday, May 4, more than 3,000 protestors had been arrested since the start of the demonstrations in early April. Jails in Birmingham and throughout Jefferson County were filled to capacity, so many of those arrested were taken to the Alabama State Fairground, also known as Fair Park.

But the plan by Movement leaders to desegregate the city would slowly head to its desired result.

Barnett Wright is the editor of The Birmingham Times and author of “1963: How the Birmingham Civil Rights Movement Changed America and the World