We Sacrifice Our Children for Their Future
The African American Civil Rights Movement is a phenomenon that shows how our collective memory works: It proves that it is very selectively. Although there were as many smaller and bigger steps to take in the movement, as you need to reach the top of the Burj Chalifa, most of us remember not many more than the ‘March on Washington’. Although a lot of people involved in the movement are worth mentioning, we know almost exclusively Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and, at best, additionally Rosa Parks.
And like our collective memory has forgotten about most of the good things, it has forgotten about the controversies and faults of the movement – except for its unforgotten bad boy Malcolm X, who never got the second chance, he apparently deserved.
But I do not generally want to talk about the neglected heroes, the Malcolm X’s and Bayard Rustins. I want to talk about a specific group of tragic heroes and heroines that are also often forgotten in this context: The children.
It was the fact that poor Emmett Till was a little boy that shocked the masses; there were nine pupils trying to attend the school in Littlerock who deserve to be called heroes; and it were also children, who let themselves get bitten by dogs, mistreated by the police, and who finally went to jail during theChildren’s Crusade.
Since theChildren’s Crusadewas one of the most controversial steps the leaders of the movement took, amongst them also Dr. Martin Luther King, I want to discuss the role of sacrificing children and of the approving leaders in this context. First, I will give a short overview of theChildren’s Crusade, then, I will name the motives and justifications of the initiators. I, finally, want to compare the discussed roles to our present perceptions and memories of them. I think that we should uphold the ideals of the movement; therefore, we should equally and justly remember how the facts really were and who was involved in them.
TheChildren’s Crusadetook place in 1963 in Birmingham, Alabama. It was part of theSouthern Christian Leadership Conference’s (SCLC) desegregation campaign. As a measurement of theNonviolent Direct Action, a term that King had developed inspired by Gandhi and the concept ofCivil Disobedience, it was a form of resistance against the unjust segregationist law in that time. On 2nd of May, students were marching from Sixteenth Street Baptist Church to downtown Birmingham with demonstration signs and were singing freedom songs on their way, knowing that they most likely would be arrested. The youngest students taking part in the march were only six years old. Indeed, most of the students were arrested that day, 972 students altogether. With reinforcements and finally using school busses instead of paddy wagons, the police transported group by group – each consisting of 50 pupils, starting their march as soon as the previous group was arrested – to Birmingham prisons. None of the students were resisting their arrest; most of them were kneeling and praying.
James Bevel, the initiator of the crusade, discouraged the parents from bailing their children out, since the jails were soon entirely filled up. The next day the protest went on with another 1000 students, skipping classes. Since the police had no more capacities to arrest all of them, Commissioner Theophilus Eugene “Bull” Connor adopted more drastic measures: The Sixteenth Street Baptist Church was barricaded by the police, and when the students tried to continue their protest, they were attacked by monitor guns of the fire department and dogs of the police department. The pictures of children blasted against walls and through the street by water cannons, lots of them almost entirely ripped of their clothes and additionally attacked by dogs and being beaten by policemen, were creating a big shock in the media and the public for the next days. But day after day, these images were repeated, for the marching did go on and the police brutality did not come to an end until Tuesday, the 7th of May. The same day Fred Shuttlesworth, a local minister and supporter of the movement, was smashed against a brick wall by the monitor guns until he collapsed. As he was brought away by an ambulance, Connor uttered towards a reporter: "I wish he'd been carried away in a hearse."[i] The 10th of May, finally changed the situation: As a result of the protests a desegregation agreement was announced.
Since the decision for theChildren’s Crusadewas no easy one, the Leaders of the SCLC needed to have ajustification, for themselves, the parents and for the public.
The “Jail, no Bail”-sit ins, a nonviolent form of protest to fill up the capacities of the prisons, did not bring the wished success. After eight days in prison, King recognized on the 20th of April that the demonstrations were losing support. Wyatt T. Walker, another leader of the SCLC, described the situation later: “We needed more troops [...] We had scraped the bottom of the barrel of adults who would go [to prison].”[ii] In that moment the SCLC staff member James Bevel had the idea to do theChildren’s Crusade; he argued that children had less to lose, compared to their parents who must fear to lose their jobs because of the jail time.
[i] M.L. King, Jr. The Autobiography of Martin Luther King, Jr. <http://mlk-kpp01.stanford.edu/index.php/home/pages?page=http://mlk-kpp01.stanford.edu/kingweb/publications/autobiography/chp_19.htm> (last accessed 5 Mar 2010)
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- Eberhard-Karls-Universität Tübingen – Seminar für Englische Philologie
- African-American Civil Rights Movement Children's Crusade Martin Luther King Malcolm X Bayard Rustin Rosa Parks Birmingham SCLC Jail Jail no bail Bull Connor Edgar Hoover Emmett Till Littlerock Nine