May 2, 2023

The Birmingham Children’s Crusade

The Birmingham Children’s Crusade

May 2, 1963. Amid struggles over segregation in the southern United States, all eyes turn to Birmingham, Alabama where an unlikely group of foot soldiers joins the fight against racial discrimination: children.


Cold Open

It’s around 4:15 PM on May 14th, 1961 in Birmingham, Alabama.

A bus pulls into a depot and slowly comes to a halt. Among the passengers on board are members of an organization called the Congress of Racial Equality, or CORE.

Five years ago, the Supreme Court declared segregation in interstate buses and public spaces along bus routes to be unconstitutional. But much of America’s South ignores this ruling. To protest, members of CORE have boarded buses bound for southern states and refused to comply with any segregationist measures they encounter along the way. Their journeys are known as “Freedom Rides.”

And among Birmingham’s seven newly-arrived Freedom Riders, the youngest is Charles Person, an 18-year-old black student from Atlanta.

As he steps down from the dusty bus, Charles dabs his brow with a handkerchief. A stinging pain spreads across his forehead. He winces and looks down at the red spots of blood that stain the cloth.

Earlier in their journey from Atlanta, the activists were assaulted by members of the prominent white supremacist organization, the Klu Klux Klan. Charles was seriously wounded, but his injuries weren’t enough to deter him from continuing the journey to Alabama. Even battered and bruised, he’s happy to be in Birmingham and eager to continue protesting segregation.

But as Charles follows a co-volunteer to a bus station's whites-only waiting room, he glances warily at the group of angry-looking white men standing on the platform.

The volunteer ahead of him, James Peck, is a white man too, and it shouldn't raise any concern if he walks into the waiting room alone. But Charles' presence as a black man catches the onlooker's attention. 

As Charles and James approach the waiting room, an uneasy hush falls over the station, before the men on the platform leap into action.

The angry onlookers are KKK members and they refuse to let the activists enter the segregated waiting room.

As the argument grows more heated, one burly Klansman shoves Charles against a concrete wall.

The rest of the KKK members surround the young student, shoving and punching him. His mouth bloody, Charles falls to his knees.

James rushes to help but he is outnumbered.

And soon, the Klansmen drag James and Charles into a nearby alley where the assault only grows more violent.

Just one minute into the attack, James begins to lose consciousness. As his eyes flutter shut and he crumples to the ground, Charles is left to struggle with the assailants on his own. Somehow, he manages to find an opening in the chaos and run out of the alley into the safety of a public street. When he starts calling for help, KKK members flee the scene.

But as word travels of the attack on Charles Person and James Peck, there will be no doubt that the KKK was behind it. The only question remaining is whether the city of Birmingham will do anything about it. 

Both James and Charles will survive their assault, leaving the alley bloody, but alive. News of the attack on the Freedom Riders will help underscore the severity of Birmingham’s racial violence. But any public outcry will be quickly suppressed by the Ku Klux Klan’s continued terror campaign in the city. Most of Birmingham’s Black residents will live in constant fear for their safety. But amid the unrest, the most unexpected of actors will step forward, when the children of Birmingham bravely take to the streets in a protest that will change the face of the nation’s civil rights movement on May 2nd, 1963.


From Noiser and Airship, I’m Lindsay Graham and this is History Daily.

History is made every day. On this podcast—every day—we tell the true stories of the people and events that shaped our world.

Today is May 2nd, 1963: The Birmingham Children’s Crusade.

Act One

It’s early afternoon on April 12th, 1963 in Birmingham, Alabama.

Inside one of the rooms at the Gaston Motel, Martin Luther King sits down to pray.

For the past decade, King has traveled around the nation, leading its civil rights movement. But, recently, he turned his attention to the disturbed city of Birmingham.

Birmingham is infamous for being one of the most segregated and prejudiced places in the country. The Ku Klux Klan has conducted so many bombings on its black neighborhoods that some residents call the city “Bombingham.”

The government and police, however, have made little effort to stop the attacks. Though Birmingham is 40% Black, the city has had no Black policemen, city council members, or mayors to advocate for them. The city’s entire power structure is dominated by its white residents, who see no reason to overturn the city’s many discriminatory practices, including segregation.

The leaders of the civil rights movement have just ended the first-ever effort to desegregate an entire community in Albany, Georgia. Now, Martin Luther King is in Birmingham to execute the movement’s next major campaign, but carrying out their vision is proving more difficult than anticipated.

As King sits and prays inside his motel room, he grapples with a troublesome decision. He planned to lead a major protest in Birmingham today. But a few days ago, an Alabama state court passed an injunction prohibiting demonstrations in Birmingham without a permit – something the city is unwilling to grant.

King has never violated a direct court order before, and he isn’t sure if he should start now. All last night he wrestled with this decision, torn on whether the protest is worth the inevitable mass arrests it would bring. But, as he prays today, an answer finally comes to him. King takes a deep breath of air. And as he exhales, a look of calm spreads across his face. His mind is made up: he’s going ahead with the protest.

A little after half past two in the afternoon, King strides out of the gates of the 6th Avenue Zion Hill Baptist Church, flanked by two other prominent leaders of the civil rights movement. Together, they lead a group of 50 volunteers on a march downtown to Birmingham’s city hall.

As the procession begins, spirits are high. Black neighbors start to line up on the sidewalks, looking on and cheering the protesters. But as King leads the procession toward 17th street, the unofficial border of the “Black” part of the city, he sees the first signs of trouble. There, surrounded by his police force, is the city’s Public Safety Commissioner, Eugene Connor.

Connor is infamous among Birmingham’s Black community. He's a bitter racist with open ties to the Ku Klux Klan. He controls the city’s police force and firefighters and often uses them to achieve his own discriminatory ends.

Today, Connor’s strategy to halt the march is characteristically heavy-handed. To prevent the activists from crossing into the white side of town, the police have set up a barricade of armed men ready to arrest any protesters who try to pass. But Connor’s plan fails. Spotting the police, King abruptly makes a few sharp turns to evade the checkpoint, and the group manages to cross into downtown Birmingham.

As the procession marches past the impressive marble facades of the city’s post office and courthouse, Connor grows incensed. He demands the police stop the marchers from getting any farther. So a new barricade is set up, and this time, the police manage to intercept the protesters, rounding them up and arresting as many as they can.

King is among those apprehended and taken to Birmingham City Jail, where he’s placed in solitary confinement. It’s in this concrete box that King pens one of the most important texts of the Civil Rights era. In an open letter, he defends the movement’s civil disobedience and urges others to take direct and immediate action in confronting society’s injustices.

Four days after penning his now-famous “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” King will be set free on bail eager to resume his protests. But few others will share his energy. With jobs to hold down and families to provide for, many of the city’s adult activists will hesitate to rejoin the protests out of fear of more arrests. But, in their absence, Birmingham’s younger leaders will step forward with a radical way to continue the fight.

Act Two

It’s April 1963 in Birmingham, Alabama, just days after Martin Luther King’s release from jail.

On a wooden pew at the back of the church sits twelve-year-old Freeman Hrabowski. A thick mathematics textbook lies open on his lap.

This evening, Freeman is attending a meeting conducted by the leaders of the Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights. His parents are deeply involved in the civil rights movement and they insist their son join these gatherings as well. But since Freeman would rather stay home doing school work, they reached a compromise — Freeman has to attend the meetings, but he is allowed to sit at the back and study.

So Freeman continues his work, absently chewing on the end of his pencil. Turning away for a moment, he reaches for the half-eaten packet of M&Ms lying next to him and notices that the church is far more crowded than usual. Looking over the shoulders of the people in the row ahead of him, he realizes why. A familiar figure stands at the pulpit - Martin Luther King.

Freeman closes his textbook as King clears his throat and tells the crowd about a new idea to revive Birmingham’s faltering civil rights movement. He wants the children of Birmingham to fill the streets, marching to end segregation and singing for their freedom, showing America that even its youngest understand the difference between right and wrong.

Sitting in the pew, Freeman thinks this is a great idea. And he leaves the church determined to join the demonstration. But when he asks his parents if he can be a part of the march, they refuse; they don’t want to put him in danger, no matter the cause.

So when he goes to his room later that night, Freeman is disappointed. As he puts his math textbook away, he runs a finger over the dog-eared cover. The book is battered and torn, its bind bearing holding onto his pages. The black schools of Birmingham always have the old, hand-me-down textbooks. And for Freeman, this is just another sad reminder of the inferior facilities available to children like him, and the reason integration is so important. It makes him want to join the march even more, but his parents are firm in their refusal.

The following morning, however, Freeman wakes to a strange sight. His parents sit on either side of his bed, their eyes puffy and faces streaked with tears. With a slight sniffle, his mother tells him that he is allowed to join the children’s march. They are still terrified of what might happen, but they have decided to leave it in God’s hands.

Freeman will be one of the many children who answers the call to march. As the youth boldly rise to the challenge, community leaders organize regular meetings to train them in the ways of nonviolent protest. Preparations continue up to the very day of the march.

And then, on the morning of May 2nd, 1963, Freeman wakes up nervous. After weeks of anticipation, it’s time for he and his peers to take to the streets of Birmingham.

The children assemble at Sixteenth Street Baptist Church where they are organized and lined up, before beginning their march to city hall. As he walks out of the church gates, Freeman’s feet tremble with every step, but his fear subsides as the children around him start singing songs of freedom and love. Their unity comforts him. And Freeman smiles and begins to sing along, happy to feel part of something bigger than himself.

As they enter downtown, the children encounter barricades and policemen who hurl insults at them. But the children don’t react — they just continue singing and walk a little faster. But as they pick up their pace, the children’s orderly formation breaks down. In the shuffle, Freeman suddenly finds himself right in front of a heavy man in horn-rimmed glasses - a man Freeman recognizes immediately as Eugene Connor.

Connor grabs the boy’s neck and pulls him close. Snarling, he asks Freeman what the children want. When Freeman tells him that they want only to kneel and pray for their freedom, Connor spits in the young boy’s face and arrests him.

Freeman and nearly a thousand other children that day are thrown in jail. But that doesn't end the protests. Over the next few days, more and more children parade through the streets of Birmingham.

As they march, Connor orders the police to release their dogs on the young protestors, while firemen are told to use their hoses on the crowd. Onlookers are horrified to watch children attacked by dogs and thrown to the ground by the fierce jets of water.

As the media picks up on the battle erupting in Birmingham streets, pictures of the Connor's brutal force show of force appear on TV screens and newspapers across the globe. With the world watching, new pressure is on Birmingham’s leadership to negotiate with the protesters. Within days, a settlement is reached, which enacts a phased desegregation of public facilities and a reduction of discriminatory hiring practices. Meanwhile, the jail cells, overflowing with arrested children, are finally opened.

Martin Luther King will laud the moment as a huge victory for the civil rights movement, declaring it “the climax of a long struggle for justice, freedom, and human dignity in the city of Birmingham.” But for the city’s children, the fight will not be over. Just a few months later, they will be forced to suffer again.

Act Three

It’s an overcast Sunday morning on September 15th, 1963.

Sarah Collins races her sister Addie to the ladies’ lounge in the basement of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church. The two girls are late for their Sunday School class. But they don’t want to be scolded for being tardy, so they decide to sit on a couch in the small lounge and wait for the class to end. There’s a youth program being conducted at the church later and the sisters chatter excitedly about taking part. But none of that is Collins sisters' minds today. They continue to chat and gossip until three other girls enter the ladies' lounge, Cynthia Wesley, Carole Robertson, and Denise McNair.

It was in this church that Birmingham’s children assembled ahead of their march four months ago. Since then, the moderates who now control the city government have started implementing the terms of the settlement achieved by the children's protest. But the Ku Klux Klan remains defiantly opposed to any kind of desegregation, and they have chosen today, and this church, to make another violent attack on progress.

The girls don’t understand what happens next, only that a deafening roar fills the room, and the basement is instantly filled with dust, dirt, bricks, and glass. Shards of debris blind Sarah’s eyes and she screams out for her sister. But Addie doesn’t answer. Sarah gropes around crawling around the basement floor, searching for her sibling. But it is too late; Addie is already dead.

Later, Sarah will learn that the explosion was the work of the Ku Klux Klan. They placed a bomb under the church’s steps near the basement bathroom. Sarah will spend two months in hospital as doctors remove two dozen pieces of glass from her eyes. But unlike the four girls, Sarah will survive.

The KKK’s ruthless attack and its four young casualties will spark widespread public outrage. Despite the progress of civil rights campaigns in Birmingham and elsewhere, this bombing will make clear that the movement has much farther to go. And in the wake of the tragedy, President John F. Kennedy will issue a statement, pleading for the event to unite Americans and awaken the nation to the folly of racial injustice, hatred, and violence. And the following year, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 is signed into law by President Lyndon B. Johnson, becoming the first federal legislation that prohibits race-based discrimination. This landmark law will be widely celebrated by activists all across the country, but perhaps among the most enthusiastic will be the children who tackled the fight for equality themselves when they joined the Birmingham Children’s Crusade on May 2nd, 1963.


Next on History Daily. May 3rd, 1979. After climbing through the ranks of the Conservative Party, Margaret Thatcher becomes Britain’s first-ever female Prime Minister.

From Noiser and Airship, this is History Daily, hosted, edited, and executive produced by me, Lindsay Graham.

Audio editing by Muhammad Shahzaib.

Sound design by Mischa Stanton.

Music by Lindsay Graham.

This episode is written and researched by Rhea Purohit.

Produced by Alexandra Currie-Buckner.

Executive Producers are Steven Walters for Airship, and Pascal Hughes for Noiser.