Prelude to civil rights

The Birmingham Children’s Crusade ‘forced the country to admit that segregation was morally unacceptable’

Martin Luther King Jr. had begun to see Birmingham, Ala., as “probably the most segregated city in America.” In the spring of 1963 he brought his organization, the Southern Christian Leadership Council (SCLC), to Birmingham at the invitation of the local activist Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth.

The plan for Birmingham was called Project C, for “confrontation.” The activists conducted pickets and marches to pressure the downtown department stores to change racist policies that allowed Blacks to spend their money at the stores but not to try on clothes before they purchased them, eat at the lunch counters, or use the public restrooms. Still, some African Americans were opposed to the actions, and progress was slow.

All that changed when one of King's young lieutenants suggested that the children lead the marches. For several days in early May 1963, thousands of Birmingham's children and youth enthusiastically skipped school to march. Facing dogs and firehoses, they sang and clapped as they were led off to fill the jails. Within days, the businessmen had agreed to the Blacks' modest demands, and the movement declared a success.

How important was the Children's Crusade? It was critical for the Birmingham demonstrations to succeed. Award-winning author and Birmingham native Diane McWhorter says, “Although the gains won in Birmingham may seem minor, Project C brought about one of the most dramatic shifts in the history of the country. The Movement [...] forced the country to admit that segregation was morally unacceptable.”

Some historians say that the Birmingham movement led directly to passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act.

-From a lesson plan courtesy of Kids in Birmingham 1963 (kidsinbirmingham1963.org)

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