April was a cruel month for Black people in Birmingham, Alabama, in 1963. So was May, and the months that followed, culminating in the explosion of a bomb in an church that September that killed four girls. Fifty years ago today, on May 2, 1963, teen-agers and children, some as young as six, marched in Birmingham to protest segregation. Many were arrested for parading without a permit, but the marchers came back the next day. They were viciously knocked down in the streets by torrents of water from fire hoses wielded by White policemen, were hit with batons or set upon by police dogs. Martin Luther King, Jr., who had been arrested in the city on April 12th—he was held for a week, during which he wrote his “Letter from Birmingham Jail”— referred to them as “the disinherited children of God.” The marches became known as the Children’s Crusade.
Memories of that tumultuous time came back this past weekend, during a three-day symposium marking the fiftieth anniversary of the Birmingham campaign sponsored by the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute. Birmingham, 1963, was known as Bombingham: there had been some fifty dynamite attacks on Black homes since the end of the Second World War. Birmingham had another label: the most segregated city in the South. Black people could spend their money in downtown stores but were not being hired or served.
One of the Children’s Crusaders was Janice Wesley Kelsey, who was in the eleventh grade when she was arrested along with hundreds of other students. She spent four days in jail.