Birmingham’s Children

a sermon by the Rev. J. Mark Worth


In May of 1963, more than a thousand students in Birmingham, Alabama, skipped school as part of the African-American Civil Rights campaigns of that era. They marched from the 16th Street Baptist Church into the downtown area to meet with the mayor and integrate chosen buildings.

Children left the church while singing hymns and freedom songs such as “We Shall Overcome.”

More than 600 were arrested, some as young as eight years old. For Martin Luther King, Jr., Sunday, Mark will tell the story of this “Children’s Crusade.”


Excerpt from “Letter From a Birmingham Jail” by Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., 1963:

For years now I have heard the word “Wait!” … We have waited more than 340 years for our Constitutional and God-given rights. … Perhaps it is easy for those who have never felt the stinging darts of segregation to say, “Wait.” But when you have seen vicious mobs lynch your mothers and fathers at will and drown your sisters and brothers at whim; when you have seen hate-filled policemen curse, kick, and even kill your black brothers and sisters; when you see the vast majority of your 20 million Negro brothers smothering in an airtight cage of poverty in the midst of an affluent society; when you suddenly find your tongue twisted and your speech stammering as you seek to explain to your six-year-old daughter why she can’t go to the public amusement park that has just been advertised on television, and see tears welling up in her eyes when she is told that Funtown is closed to colored children, and see ominous clouds of inferiority beginning to form in her little mental sky … ; when you have to concoct an answer for a five-year-old son who is asking: “Daddy, why do white people treat colored people so mean?”; when you take a cross-country drive and find it necessary to sleep night after night in the uncomfortable corners of your automobile because no motel will accept you; when you are humiliated day in and day out by nagging signs reading “white” and “colored”; when your first name becomes “nigger,” your middle name becomes “boy” (however old you are), … and your wife and mother are never given the respected title “Mrs.”; when you are harried by day and haunted by night by the fact that you are a Negro, living constantly at tiptoe stance, never quite knowing what to expect next … – then you will understand why we find it difficult to wait.


This is a true story. For the kids here today 1963 must sound like a long time ago. But to me it’s not so long ago. All of this happened just after I turned 15, when I was still in 9th grade. I lived a long, long way from Birmingham, Alabama, but my parents and I watched this story as Walter Cronkite reported it on the CBS Evening News.

Birmingham, Alabama, was the most segregated city in the South. I don’t know if our kids know what segregation means – it means keeping black people and white people separate from each other as much as possible, and keeping white people in control and in places of privilege. Black people couldn’t use the same bathrooms or drinking fountains as white people; they couldn’t go to the public library or use public parks or public swimming pools – they were for whites only. Black kids went to separate schools, schools that weren’t very good, where the textbooks were used books the white schools didn’t want any more. Black people weren’t allowed to have most good jobs. They weren’t allowed to live in white neighborhoods. Black people weren’t even allowed in white churches!

Ted Johnson told me about how, in the 1960s, he tried to go into a restaurant in Memphis, Tennessee, with a white friend. They let his friend in, but stopped him. He was told that he could order take-out food, but could not sit down at a table. The employee who stopped him said, “they would fire me if I let you sit down.”

And Birmingham was the worst. Between 1947 and 1965 there were fifty bombings of black- owned homes and businesses and churches, and no one was arrested. People called the city “Bombingham.” One black neighborhood was bombed so often that people called it “Dynamite Hill.”

And so Civil Rights workers in Birmingham tried to change things. Because black people couldn’t eat in the restaurants downtown or sit at the lunch counters, and had to use “colored” bathrooms and drinking fountains, and businesses downtown wouldn’t hire any black people, Civil Rights groups decided to ask black people to not shop downtown. When downtown business fell by 40%, some downtown businesses took down the “whites only” and “colored” signs. But the Chief of Police, Eugene “Bull” Connor, said, “Put those signs back up or you’ll lose your business license.”

So the Civil Rights groups said, “We will get black people to sit down in white restaurants and at white lunch counters.” But the demonstrators got beat up and arrested. And many got fired from their jobs, or had their cars repossessed, or had their home mortgages foreclosed. And so people were afraid to join the protests.

The Southern Christian Leadership Conference, which was leading the demonstrations, asked Rev. Martin Luther King to come and help. He came to Birmingham, and he was arrested by the police and put in jail for several days. While he was in jail he wrote his famous “Letter From a Birmingham Jail,” and we have read part of that today.

But Rev. King was having trouble getting people to join him in the protests, because people were afraid of losing their jobs, or having their car taken by the bank, or having their house bombed by the Ku Klux Klan.

After he was released from jail, Rev. King spoke to a rally at the 16th Street Baptist Church. And he said, “Who is willing to go to jail? Who is willing to get arrested with me tomorrow? Stand up if you are willing to get arrested with me.” And for a long moment, nothing happened. No one stood up.

And then a little girl stood up. She might have been ten year old. And a little boy stood up. And another. And children started standing up all around the church sanctuary.

At first, Rev. King said, no, the children are too young. But the children had been meeting with Civil Rights workers at after-school meetings in the black churches. And they wanted to help, because they, too, felt the sting of segregation. So the Civil Rignts leaders, Rev. Dr. King, Andrew Young, Dorothy Cotton, Rev. James Bevel, Rev. Ralph Abernathy, and Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth got together and talked, and decided to let the children help.

And they organized. And one day that they called D-Day, the children just walked out of school. Hundreds of elementary and high school students walked out of school and walked to the 16th Street Baptist Church. And they got organized. And they sang freedom songs like “We Shall Overcome!”

And then fifty students walked out of the church, planning to walk downtown to meet with the mayor. But the police were waiting. And Chief of Police Bull Connor asked where they were going. “We want to talk to the mayor,” they said. “You don’t have a permit for a demonstration,” Bull Connor answered. And he had them arrested. Special police trucks called paddy wagons were ready. The kids were put into the paddy wagons and were driven off to jail.

But as soon as the paddy wagons left, fifty more children came out of the church singing “We Shall Overcome!” And Bull Connor had them arrested, and he had more paddy wagons come to take them away. But then fifty more children came out of the church, and then fifty more! And Bull Connor had them arrested and put into police cars because the paddy wagons were all busy with the other children.

And fifty more children came out of the church, and then fifty more, and again fifty more. So Bull Connor called on the phone and got the school buses, and they took the children to jail in school buses. And by the end of the day more than 900 children had been arrested and put in jail. And the jail was full.

The next day, the schools locked the doors and locked the gates on the fences at school to keep the kids in. And the kids jumped out of the windows and climbed over the fence, and went to the 16th Street Baptist Church. And more than a thousand children were arrested that day.

And they did it again the next day. And the jail was full. So Bull Connor started filling the jail yard, the outside area surrounded by chain-link fence and barbed wire – until that area was full. And they didn’t have any place to put more children, so they had to stop arresting them.

So Bull Connor, still trying to stop the children from going downtown, brought out the Fire Department. And they aimed the fire hoses at the children. These are not like your garden hose. These are powerful hoses, so powerful that it takes four men to hold one, and the force of the water can rip the bark off trees. And they knocked the children over, and the force of the water pushed them down the street. But the children kept coming. Bull Connor brought out police dogs that would attack the demonstrators and bite them. But the children kept coming. And adults joined in, feeling brave because of the courage of the children. So Bull Connor didn’t know what to do – he couldn’t stop the demonstrators, and he couldn’t arrest them because he had 3,000 children in the jail and didn’t have any place to for more.

And the mayor and downtown merchants began to negotiate with Rev. Dr. King. They didn’t want to change things, but they knew that most of the country was watching them.

I was watching. My dad and my mom and I were watching all of this on TV. And my parents were saying that this is wrong, segregation is wrong, racial prejudice is wrong, and Rev. King is right.

President John F. Kennedy was watching. President Kennedy called Rev. Dr. King, and said, “Please stop the children!” But Rev. King said, “I can’t stop them. They want to march, they want to protest, because it’s about their rights, too.”

Then President Kennedy called the mayor of Birmingham and said, “I’m sending the deputy attorney general and my top negotiator to Birmingham, and you need to find a settlement.”

And in a couple of days the mayor and the downtown merchants were negotiating with Rev. King and the other Civil Rights leaders, but they didn’t want to end segregation. And they decided to take a lunch break. And when they went outside, they found Black people – we said “Negros” back then – all over the downtown. Thousands of black people on the streets and in the restaurants and using the whites only bathrooms and sitting at the whites only lunch counters, and singing freedom songs like “We Shall Overcome!”

And the white merchants and the mayor couldn’t get lunch. And they gave up. They came back to the meeting and said, “What do you want?” And they agreed to let black people use the bathrooms and the lunch counters and drinking fountains and the public library and the public parks. And they promised to hire Negro clerks and salespeople.

President Kennedy went on TV, and promised to introduce a Civil Rights Bill to integrate public places all over the United States, and put an end to the racial segregation laws.

The children of Birmingham had changed America.

But victory is not that easy. Two months later, men belonging to the Ku Klux Klan set off a bomb one Sunday morning in the 16th Street Baptist church, and killed four little girls who were there for Sunday School. Later that year a man shot and killed President Kennedy.

The next president, Lyndon Johnson, did get Congress to pass President Kennedy’s Civil Rights Bill, and it is known as the Civil Rights Act of 1964. And they passed the Voting Rights Act of 1965 to protect the right of Black people to vote and sit on juries. Bull Connor was voted out of office. And today the Police Chief in Birmingham, A.C. Roper, is a black man.

We know that things are not perfect today. We still have many problems. We know that in 1968 a white man shot and killed Rev. Dr. King. We know there is still racial prejudice today.

But we cannot forget what happened in Birmingham, Alabama, where there is a statue today to the Birmingham “Children’s Crusade,” and the words on the monument say, “I Ain’t Afraid.”

This is how Rev. Dr. King achieved a great victory. It was the children, because of the children who stood up in church that day, and marched after that, Rev. King’s Birmingham Campaign is remembered as a great victory. Because of the children, the laws were changed. We were changed.

Because of the children of Birmingham, we are better people, and our nation is a better place. …Amen.