Children’s Crusade of 1963, a pivotal event of the Civil Rights Movement, opened the eyes of the nation through the courageous activism of its youngest citizens.
Aware that support for protests in Birmingham was waning during April 1963, King and the SCLC looked for ways to jumpstart the campaign. When the arrest and jailing of King did little to attract more protestors, SCLC staff member James Bevel proposed recruiting local students, arguing that while many adults may be reluctant to participate in demonstrations for fear of losing their jobs, their children had less to lose.
On May 2, 1963, more than a thousand students skipped school and gathered at the 16th Street Baptist Church. The principal of Parker High School attempted to lock the gates to keep students in, but they scrambled over the walls to get to the church. Demonstrators were given instructions to march to the downtown area, to meet with the Mayor, and integrate the chosen buildings. They were to leave in smaller groups and continue on their courses until arrested. Marching in disciplined ranks, some of them using walkie-talkies, they were sent at timed intervals from various churches to the downtown business area. More than 600 students were arrested; the youngest of these was reported to be eight years old. Children left the churches while singing hymns and “freedom songs” such as “We Shall Overcome”. They clapped and laughed while being arrested and awaiting transport to jail. The mood was compared to that of a school picnic. Although Bevel informed Connor that the march was to take place, Connor and the police were dumbfounded by the numbers and behavior of the children. They assembled paddy wagons and school buses to take the children to jail. When no squad cars were left to block the city streets, Connor, whose authority extended to the fire department, used fire trucks. The day’s arrests brought the total number of jailed protesters to 1,200 in the 900-capacity Birmingham jail.
The use of children proved very controversial. Incoming mayor Albert Boutwell and Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy condemned the decision to use children in the protests. Kennedy was reported in The New York Times as saying, “an injured, maimed, or dead child is a price that none of us can afford to pay”, although adding, “I believe that everyone understands their just grievances must be resolved. Malcolm X criticized the decision, saying, “Real men don’t put their children on the firing line.”
King, who had been silent and ten out of town while Bevel was organizing the children, was impressed by the success of using them in the protests. That evening he declared at a mass meeting, “I have been inspired and moved by today. I have never seen anything like it.” Although Wyatt Tee Walker was initially against the use of children in the demonstrations, he responded to criticism by saying, “Negro children will get a better education in five days in jail than in five months in a segregated school. The D Day campaign received front page coverage by The Washington Post and The New York Times.