Skip directly to content

Children's Crusade

Grace London, Auburn University
Mattie Howard Arrest
The Children's Crusade was a controversial episode of the modern civil rights movement and the 1963 Birmingham Campaign in which African American school children marched for desegregation. Organized by the Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights (ACMHR) and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) in Birmingham, Jefferson County, it was intended to force integration of public spaces and local businesses in the famously segregated city. Although unsuccessful in immediately desegregating the city's public spaces, the Crusade did bring national attention to the harsh realities of Jim Crow laws in the South. Soon after the event, Pres. John F. Kennedy called for a civil rights bill that one year later became the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
By the end of April 1963, the Birmingham Campaign, led by Martin Luther King Jr. of the SCLC and Fred L. Shuttlesworth of the ACMHR, was faltering. After weeks of boycotts, picket lines, sit-ins, and arrests, the campaign had not achieved the goals of desegregating public areas in the highly segregated city as set forth in the ACMHR's Birmingham Manifesto. It explained that African Americans had been economically exploited and endured political domination, despite seeking relief by petitioning the city and working through the legal system. Along with desegregating public places, the ACMHR also called upon the city to institute merit hiring policies for city jobs.
"Bull" Connor in 1963
Like King's Albany Campaign in Georgia, the movement's lack of media attention jeopardized the campaign's effectiveness and dampened enthusiasm among volunteers. Hoping to avoid the failures of the Albany Campaign, King proposed altering the groups' plans to gain more media attention. On April 29, 1963, King convened an emergency meeting of the ACMHR-SCLC Central Committee to discuss the campaign's impending collapse if they did not change their tactics and attract more volunteers. During this meeting, leaders James Bevel and Ike Reynolds mentioned the 150 or so adolescent volunteers who had participated in the campaign and who were eager to contribute toward its success. Previously, King and other civil rights leaders had refused to allow school-aged children to participate in their efforts. Many found the suggestion of exposing children to the violence of Commissioner of Public Safety T. Eugene "Bull" Connor's police force morally reprehensible. During the meeting, King wavered on the issue of child demonstrators as the Central Committee argued against Bevel and Reynolds' proposal. Nevertheless, Bevel and Reynolds convinced King to allow them to host a rally on May 2 in which adolescents would skip school and join together at several local churches.
Children's Crusade Participants
Bevel immediately began to advertise the event, which he billed as a youth "summit meeting," rather than a "rally" or "march," to avoid any controversy surrounding the participation of school-aged marchers. In particular, Bevel recruited popular African American students, such as athletes and prom queens, reasoning that these individuals could most effectively motivate and unify Birmingham's adolescent population around the school boycott so as to make it more effective. Responding to concerns in the days preceding the youth rally that young people would not be enthusiastic or turn out in great numbers, Bevel argued that child marchers could be more effective than adult demonstrators because children would be influenced by peer pressure to join their friends. Bevel also added that the adolescents' lack of financial obligations would make them more eager than adults to serve jail time because they would not be jeopardizing their jobs. Many parents and school administrators disagreed with the school boycott and spoke out against the effort, the ACMHR and SCLC, and King and Shuttlesworth. Such dissension prompted King to doubt his decision to allow Bevel to organize the youth rally.
On the morning of May 2, the Central Committee advised King to call off the march. King neither called off the meeting nor appeared at the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church. Around noon that day, Bevel began directing children (who were generally between seven and 18 years of age) with picket signs to leave the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church. Leaving in groups of between 10 and 50, the children headed toward city hall or the downtown shopping district. As they walked, the children peacefully surrendered to the Birmingham police, who were waiting for them to emerge. With a continuous stream of children marching from Sixteenth Baptist Church, AME Zion Church, and the Apostolic Overcoming Holiness Church of God, the city's jail was soon filled to maximum capacity. Throughout the Children's Crusade, the jails would remain full as more than 2,000 protestors would occupy the jails at any one time. Witnessing police restraint, which had been absent in the campaign's earlier phase, King embraced the demonstration. During a mass meeting at Sixth Avenue Baptist Church, he praised the children's bravery and recommitted himself to the Birmingham Campaign and its goals.
Violent Crowd Control
The peacefulness of the Children's Crusade did not last long, however. When the ACMHR-SCLC once again sent out child demonstrators on May 3, Connor ordered law enforcement to deter the demonstrators with high-pressure water cannons and attack dogs. After arresting 70 youths, the police and the fire department again employed these violent tactics to stop the rest of the children from exiting the church or from escaping into nearby Kelly Ingram Park. Despite the Crusade's nonviolent mandate, bystanders began to throw bricks and bottles at the police to stop them from continuing to hurt the children, prompting law enforcement to turn hoses and dogs on those bystanders. For the next few days, the pattern continued as children attempted to march and the police attempted to stop them. The police brutality leveled against the young demonstrators as well as the plight of the students who remained imprisoned unified Birmingham's African American community and increased support for the ACMHR-SCLC's campaign. Many individuals who had initially opposed the campaign's involvement of child demonstrators rallied behind the imprisoned youths.
The events in Birmingham brought national attention as the news media sent journalists and photographers to document them. Among the photographers present, Charles Moore of Life magazine and Bill Hudson of The New York Times famously photographed the events of May 3 and 4 and published the photos in their respective publications. These images of young black people brutalized by white police caused international embarrassment for the United States and its government. In the midst of the Cold War, the federal government wanted to be seen as promoting freedom and not sanctioning racial oppression.
Kelly Ingram Park Sculpture
The negative media attention prompted Pres. Kennedy to take action. On May 3, 1963, he sent Assistant Attorney General Burke Marshall to negotiate with the ACMHR-SCLC to end the demonstrations. Over the next few days, Marshall convinced King and Ralph Abernathy to compromise with Birmingham city leaders and businessmen over the alacrity with which city accommodations and businesses would be forced to desegregate. Although the Birmingham Manifesto had called for the immediate desegregation of public spaces and private businesses, King and Abernathy agreed to allow Birmingham a short time delay to fulfill their demands. Shuttlesworth, who had been injured during the Crusade, was unable to attend the negotiation and give his input. King and Abernathy's compromise would cause a rift between King and Shuttlesworth, who believed that King had used his "local" civil rights effort to gain national recognition.
The Children's Crusade stands as one of the civil rights movement's more brutal events. The violence, however, achieved the goal of raising national attention and pushing the Kennedy Administration to minimize its international embarrassment by sending agents to work towards desegregating Birmingham. On June 11, 1963, Pres. Kennedy called for a civil rights bill to prohibit racial discrimination and eliminate segregation in schools, employment, and public areas. This call would eventually culminate in the Civil Rights Act of 1964, signed by Pres. Lyndon B. Johnson on July 2 of that year.

Additional Resources

Eskew, Glenn. But for Birmingham: The Local and National Movements in the Civil Right Struggle. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1997.
Manis, Andrew. A Fire You Can?t Put Out: The Civil Rights Life of Birmingham?s Reverend Fred Shuttlesworth. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1999.
McWhorter, Diane. Carry Me Home: Birmingham, Alabama, The Climactic Battle of the Civil Rights Revolution. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2001.
Published:  October 6, 2017   |   Last updated:  October 6, 2017