January 18, 2016

Children's Crusade

Today is the third Monday of January. That means it is the annual Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday. For me (since 2016 is not a presidential inauguration year), that means a half day of work and a Wizards home game later today, which makes this one of my absolute favorite days of the year. Next year, it won't be quite the same; for some reason the NBA avoids Washington on the MLK holiday on inauguration years so there will be no game here next year unless there's a change of strategy on the league's part. I'll mourn the loss of a 2017 home game when Hillary is being sworn in as the first female president of the United States.

This holiday also means it's time for me to write a post offering a glimpse into some site related to Dr. King's life or legacy. I've said it before and I'll say it again: there's a reason the NBA makes an effort to schedule afternoon games on this day and it really has nothing to do with basketball. This day is for remembering something we should never forget. Last year I made a trip to the Lincoln Memorial, site of Dr. King's famous "I Have A Dream" speech given in August 1963. That post followed a column the previous year about my trip to the memorial to Dr. King erected on the National Mall. Unfortunately, those two posts pretty much killed my list of local significant sites, so this year, I traveled to Birmingham, Alabama to find out more about the Civil Rights Movement. Things were a lot more serious down there than they were here in Washington.

The beginnings of the Civil Rights Movement in the United States can be traced back to April 1951 at R. R. Moton High School in Prince Edward County, Virginia when the students at the segregated all-black high school walked out of class to protest the overcrowded and inadequate conditions which existed in their school. That act, and the subsequent two week strike by the students, ultimately led to the United States Supreme Court ruling on the Brown v. Board of Education case that segregation based on race in public schools was unconstitutional. Subsequent rulings by the Supreme Court required segregation be phased out over time, but with no specific schedule. And it only applied to public schools.

Statue of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in Kelly Ingram (formerly West) Park.
12 years after that initial Moton High School walk out, life was not a whole lot different when it came to race relations in most of the south,  despite a series of sit-ins at lunch counters and other locations; Freedom Rides; some significant integration of schools; and what could be called a successful bus boycott in Montgomery, Alabama. In 1963, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) led by president Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. along with local leader Fred Shuttlesworth selected Birmingham, Alabama for the site of what they called Project "C", a series of non-violent protests and sit-ins designed to force an end to segregation in Birmingham, a city at that time was perhaps the most segregated city in the nation. "C" by the way stood for Confrontation.

Project "C" followed an effort in Birmingham begun in late 1962 to boycott local downtown businesses which supported segregation. The boycott (or "selective buying campaign" since boycotts were illegal in Birmingham) had already drawn reactions. The City Commission of Birmingham cut back funding for a surplus food program used mostly by low income black residents in the city and Police Commissioner "Bull" Connor started issuing threats to cancel business licenses for stores that removed "Whites Only" or "Colored Only" signs from their storefronts.

One of the keys to the success of Project "C" was Bull Connor, who had historically reacted to non-violent or passive protests with alarming violence. The hope was that the expected police violence would draw national media attention and that mass arrests would fill the city's jail system and shut down the city's law enforcement's ability to function. But by April of 1963, Project "C" was not having the results desired by Dr. King and other leaders and the program was costing more money than planned, in part due to Connor quadrupling the bail requirement for arrested protesters, which included Dr. King. Project "C" was not working.

Sculpture of Parker High School student Walter Gadsden being attacked by police dogs based on a photograph published in the New York Times.
Local SCLC leadership was desperate. This desperation led them to make a controversial but critical decision in April 1963 to enlist the help of children in their protest effort. The decision was widely condemned by everyone from Robert Kennedy to Malcolm X and Dr. King initially remained silent on the decision. But the logic presented by SCLC organizer James Bevel that students would present a more united front while also not hurting their families through loss of income caused by their arrests were compelling and the campaign proceeded. The effort over a few days in May of 1963 would later be referred to as the Children's Crusade by Newsweek magazine.

On May 2, 1963, more than 1,000 students skipped school and gathered at the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in downtown Birmingham. The plan was to march downtown to meet with the mayor and demand integration of selected downtown buildings. The reaction from the city and Commissioner Connor was to arrest everyone. Everyone. All of them. They used police cars and fire trucks to block the streets in the path of the marchers and used paddy wagons and school buses to haul the students to jail. By the end of the day, 1,200 students filled the 900 person capacity Birmingham jails.

The next day proved to be the turning point. That morning, another 1,000 children turned up at the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church to march. At that point there was no sense arresting any more students because the city had no place to put them. So as the protesters made their way into West Park across the street from the church, the police department tried a different strategy, using high pressure water hoses set on maximum power to repel and disperse the children. When bystanders observing the police using water hoses started fighting back by throwing rocks at the police, Connor ordered police to use the department's German shepherds to stop the attack.

It was a disaster and by the end of the day, the damage was done. Photographs and television footage of water hoses knocking children off their feet and rolling them down city streets or of dogs attacking high school students and bystanders were seen nationwide. Calls for the passage of a Civil Rights Bill were heard in congress. An editorial in the New York Times called the behavior of the police department "a national disgrace". And Oregon senator Wayne Morse compared Birmingham to South Africa. Birmingham was on the national radar in just the way Dr. King and the other Civil Rights leaders had hoped.

Hoses turned on children. I can't imagine how strong these kids were under this sort of assault.
While I'm making this sound like an unequivocal victory and a quick happy ending, it was not. Far from it. Desegregation happened slowly in Birmingham even though the integration of public schools began with the start of the new school year in September 1963. Even the protests and arrests didn't end on May 3, the first day the hoses and dogs were set on protesters. But there's no question that the acts of those two days under the direction of Dr. King and other local leaders made change happen quicker than it would have otherwise. The New York Times was right: racial segregation (and not just the behavior of the police that day) was a national disgrace.

Today, West Park still exists in downtown Birmingham, although now it's called Kelly Ingram Park, and it, along with the adjacent Birmingham Civil Rights Institute (which turned out to be closed for renovation), was my destination this past fall during a trip to Alabama to watch cars go round and round in circles. The Park now serves as a memorial to those two days in May 1963 which turned the tide of racial segregation in the city. It's pretty powerful despite the fact that it likely comes nowhere close to representing the chaos and horror those two days.

The memorial in the Kelly Ingram Park is a series of sculptures and interpretive signage describing the two days of arrests and protects in the Park and the events leading up to them. Just how devious and sinister the white leaders of Birmingham were is pretty obvious in reading the signs which dot the sidewalks around the Park. But the sculptures are the more visceral storytellers. The prejudice of the city's police force is on full display in a sculpture where a police officer is holding a young black man while also loosing his German shepherd on the man. And the sidewalk which runs through a sculpture of dogs leaping at stomach and eye level forces you to come face to face with something akin to what the protesters did on May 3. Although honestly, it's not dangerous at all any more.

But the most chilling sculpture for me in the Park is the firehose being trained on two what look like junior high school students. You can actually stand behind the controls of the hose and understand the view that the police had, one teenage boy on his hands and knees after withstanding a blast of water and a girl of similar age trying to turn her back and protect herself against the pressure. I can't imagine how these men continued to use these hoses after seeing helpless kids doing nothing other than being black being knocked down and hurt. God help us if we ever do anything like this again.

I don't know as much as I should about the Civil Rights Movement. It was a clearly a complicated, frustratingly slow and heartbreaking process to get some people in this country the basic rights which should be afforded to everyone. Every time I write on of these posts I learn a little bit more and so I intend to keep doing it on this holiday when the Wizards play at home, with a focus on events centered on Dr. King. Project "C" was an important step towards the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and may have been a sort of tipping point. After the events of May 2 and 3, 1963, most of the nation could no longer ignore what was going on. A visit to the former West Park makes that pretty clear.

Sculpture with police dogs straining at their leashes on either side of the path.

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