I watched a movie called “Mighty Times: The Children’s March” at a training for executive directors for CDF Freedom Schools® Program this week, a movie which left me devastated and inspired at the same time.
I was devastated because of the base cruelty of what I saw, but I was inspired by the courage of children and the realization of how much power children have.
The movie chronicled the activities of the children of Birmingham, Alabama in May of 1963 who decided that they were tired of being treated like second-class citizens. The Civil Rights movement, under the direction of Rev.Dr. Martin Luther King Jr, was well underway, and another organization, the Congress of Racial Equality, under the direction of James Farmer, was also making waves in the Jim Crow South.
Both organizations were having a hard time knocking down the walls of segregation. King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) was training people in non-violent resistance. Adherents to the non-violent movement were attempting to integrate lunch counters, and were being met with violence, but the incidents were not gaining national attention, at least not enough national attention to put pressure on the South to change its ways.
What the movement needed, leaders said, was for the jails to get filled up. That would draw the attention that was needed, but adult African-Americans could not risk losing their jobs by going to jail, even if it was for a good cause.
James Bevel, a member of SCLC and known to be more impatient than Dr. King for change to come,decided that it would have to be the children to fill the jails.He organized children to march in downtown Birmingham in order to get arrested.What happened was beyond the vision of anyone who was involved in the movement. The children…came in droves. Ignoring the pleas of their parents not to get involved, children, teens and young adults left schools and met in the historic Sixteenth Street Baptist church, singing and praying. They were released in groups of 50 to march downtown, and as they did, they were arrested.
Bull Connor was the mayor of Birmingham, and a rabid segregationist. He was known to drive around in a white tank. The actions of the “Negro” children, as blacks were called then, infuriated them. When arresting them did nothing to dissuade him, he ordered the children, some as young as 4 years old – to be hosed down with fire hoses, and also ordered them to be attacked by police dogs.
Still, the children came.
When there was no more room for them in city facilities, some were taken to animal pens at the state fairgrounds. It rained the night they were detained, and they had little to nothing to eat, but they were stalwart in their determination. The movie showed that some children were released from the animal pens in the dead of night …one at a time.
Because of how the children in Birmingham had been treated, the horrid pictures appearing on televisions all over the world, the back of Jim Crow was finally broken. The President of the United States at the time, John F. Kennedy, made a speech later that week saying that it was time for segregation in this country to end. He had not wanted to bother much with the situation in the South, but the thousands of children who would not be stopped forced him to have to deal with the ugliness of racism.
The Sixteenth Street Baptist Church was bombed a few months later, killing four little girls. The children had won a battle but the war based on racial hatred was yet to be won.
We were shown the movie to remind us why CDF Freedom Schools are not only important, but vital to under-served children. The children in Birmingham had been badly affected by segregation, but they had hope and drive and determination to, as the little four-year-old quoted in the film said, “be tree.” (He was so young he couldn’t even say the word “free” correctly.) Like the children in Soweto, South Africa, the children of Birmingham, Alabama gave the Civil Rights movement new momentum and purpose. Had the children not acted, one has to wonder what would be the state of African-Americans as concerns segregation today.
Because children, however, especially black and brown poor children, are plagued by circumstances beyond their control, Marian Wright Edelman, President of the Children’s Defense Fund, began the Freedom Schools movement. It is, simply, an amazing program, which takes children at risk and makes them know that they can do anything they want – beginning with reading – and moving on. The program is run by the national CDF staff, but the classes in these schools are taught by college-aged kids many of whom learn, quite by accident, that they have a passion for reaching kids whom society has all but thrown away.
Children move, sing, dance, chant, cheer …and then read, their hearts on fire, their eyes bright, their dreams unleashed. CDF Freedom Schools Program has schools all over the country, and is constantly opening more,promoting, increasing literacy in children who might otherwise slip through the cracks.
It is as though the children who marched in Birmingham in 1963 are still singing, still marching, and now, pulling other children along, reminding them that it was through and because of children that a mean man, a mean system, and a mean culture was shaken to its core.
Children filled with faith and hope, and not despair, can change the world.
A candid observation…