By Rev. Edward Pinkney
In April and May 1963, thousands of civil rights demonstrators in Birmingham, Alabama, were attacked by police officers under orders from Police Commissioner Eugene Bull Connor. The police wielded nightsticks and unleashed dogs on the marchers, and firefighters knocked down demonstrators with high-powered water hoses. Many children and adults were injured. Young blacks were jailed by the thousands while the rest of America and the world watched in horror. So many young people were arrested that these events became known as The Children’s Crusade.
The effect of the demonstrations was so great that Birmingham’s white business leaders were forced to discuss a timetable for ending segregation in downtown stores and for setting up a plan to hire black sales and office workers.
At a mass meeting on May 6, 1963, Dr. Martin Luther King spoke about the events in Birmingham:
There are those who write history and there are those who make history. I do not know how many historians we have in Birmingham tonight, but you are certainly making history, and you will make it possible for the historians of the future to write a marvelous chapter.
Segregation was not abstract to black people living in the south; it was everyday life. It touched every corner of southern existence: movie theaters, hospitals, libraries, taxicabs, churches, cemeteries—everywhere. In one Alabama city, the public library would not have children’s books that showed black and white rabbits together. In another city, blacks and whites were forbidden to play checkers with each other in public places. In South Carolina, white and black cotton mill workers were not permitted to look out the same window. In Oklahoma, telephone booths were segregated. However absurd these rules may seem today, we must demand the truth be told. These rules were meant to discriminate against and demean black people.
Some segregationists did not stop with rules that favored whites. Too many supported the use of violence against blacks. Even young black children knew and were warned about the Ku Klux Klan and other white supremacist groups. They knew that blacks were beaten, arrested, terrorized, and even murdered with little or no recourse under the law. They knew that white judges often dismissed cases brought by blacks. They knew that if a case did not go to trial, all-white juries rarely would convict a white individual for a crime against a black individual.
Blacks perceived the specific humiliation for exactly what it was and what was meant by it. They understood what was happening, why they were given stale cookies or sent to separate tables to eat or heard their elders saying “Yes sir” and “No sir” to white people decades younger than the black elders.
Ben Chaney of Meridian, Mississippi said, “We lived across the street from a white family. From my side of the street on it was the black community. Up until the time I was about ten years old, I always played with those white kids. But, once I became ten, their parents came straight out and told me they didn’t want me playing with their kids no more. Their mama told them they were better than I was and told me I couldn’t associate with her son, and I had to call him “Mister,” and the children themselves adopted that attitude. You can’t play with white kids!”