The Power of Children

Mighty Times: The Children's March
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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…

A Sister Warrior Passes On

Accession No.: 07_07_000093 Call Number: no. 3...
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Patricia Stephens Due has died after battling cancer, but cancer wasn’t the first serious and difficult battle in which she had been involved.

Due was one of several students who attended Florida A&M University in 1960, who decided that they were sick and tired of cowering under Jim Crow.  A small group of 4 students, including Due, went to a Woolworth lunch counter and sat down.

That doesn’t seem like a big thing, except that in these United States, black people back then were not allowed to sit at lunch counters and get a meal or even a drink of water.  Inspired perhaps by events in and following World War II, where African American soldiers protested because they were required to fight for America but were denied basic human rights in America, or perhaps by the stirring of African American souls that were tired of being relegated to back doors, balconies and separate restrooms and swimming pools, the students in Florida and elsewhere said, “enough.”

They were not necessarily encouraged by their parents, or, as in the case of Due, by their universities. After being arrested for sitting at the Woolworth lunch counter, Due and her fellow students were arrested and spent 49 days in jail.  They were not supported or encouraged by Florida A&M; her university suspended her.

The lack of support did not dissuade Due and others in Florida and elsewhere. Due was so tenacious in her fight for civil rights for black people that the FBI built a file on her, some 400 pages long. She at one point was attacked by a tear gas bomb, an incident which left her sensitive to light for the rest of her life. Nevertheless, she pressed on.

The story of Due, and others, black and white, is mind-boggling. So many of the basic civil rights that African-Americans have now is because of these people, like Due, like Irene Morgan and Ruby Bridges…who refused to back down or back out.  The story of the Freedom Riders, who rode on buses and willingly endured beatings, terrorism by the Klan, murders of some of their friends, fires deliberately set to the buses on which they rode …defies imagination.

Thinking of what these brave people did – so many of them students at the time, like Due was, makes me wonder if we really appreciate what they did. They were so brave.  Jim Crow laws were strong as was the hatred that surrounded them, but the courage of the participants in the Civil Rights demonstrations was stronger. They pressed on even when they could not get the federal government to listen to them or support them. Only when the news reports of how certain people in the United States were denied basic human rights began to hit the air waves in Europe did President Kennedy, for example, order federal troops to Alabama to protect Freedom Riders there. The treatment of African-Americans made America look bad in the eyes of the world.

Patricia Stephens Due was one of many sister-warriors who fought in that horrendous time of American history.  The women of the Civil Rights movement are often not mentioned, paled in comparison as the male leaders are lifted up, but it is clear that Due,one of the founding members of her local chapter of the Congress of Racial Equality, were no less important and no less powerful. They kept the vision of a better life for themselves and for their children, and for all children, ahead of themselves and above their egos. They just would not quit.

Patricia Stephens Due fought cancer for years and would not quit that fight, either; in fact, she fought for everything she wanted.  In 1965, she was allowed to re-enoll in Florida A&M University to complete her education and was awarded an honorary degree by the university in 2006. There was never a doubt in her mind that she would finish her education and get her degree, any more than it was a doubt that she was going to fight for basic civil rights. She spent her life fighting …and cancer was but one of the enemies on her battlefield

She never got off that battlefield, and we, the children of sister-warriors like Due, are the beneficiaries of their work.

It is humbling to read and study about the people who really walked on the water called Jim Crow and overt racial discrimination. It takes a lot of courage to do that, as well as conviction; Jim Crow was a Goliath back in Due’s day, supported by armies made up of the local, state and federal governments. The warriors were as “unarmed” to face that Goliath as was David in the Biblical account.

It seems today that the Goliath is not as blatant as it was in Due’s day;  the Goliath has not gone away, however. It presents itself in more socially acceptable ways, but is just as big and threatening as it was when Due sat down at a lunch counter in Florida. The thing is, many to most of us do not or will not see it, and so are probably much more threatened than we would be if we would recognize it.

Due, I know, always saw the Goliath, in spite of having to forever wear dark classes because of the tear gas bomb attack she endured in 1960.

The Goliath called racism is still here, sadly. Its light is subdued by clouds of deception which make way too many people think that the Goliath has gone away. Ironically, too many of us wear dark glasses because we do not want to see what is still with us.

A candid observation …