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Participants in the 1963 children's crusade remember the protest and its legacy

ERIC DEGGANS, HOST:

Birmingham, Ala., is celebrating the 60th anniversary of the city's civil rights movement. It marked a turning point when leaders, including Reverend Martin Luther King Jr., looked to children to join the struggle for equal rights. The brutal response from white segregationists shocked the world, and it galvanized support for the Civil Rights Act. NPR's Debbie Elliott has this look back on what's known as the Children's Crusade.

DEBBIE ELLIOTT, BYLINE: Paulette Roby walks along historic Fourth Avenue in downtown Birmingham.

PAULETTE ROBY: All of these are Black-owned businesses along here - the barbershop...

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Hey, how y'all doing?

ROBY: ...And...

ELLIOTT: Roby chairs an association of the so-called Foot Soldiers, dedicated to documenting the stories of people, like Roby, who, as children, spent the spring of 1963 peacefully marching for human rights.

(SOUNDBITE OF BIRD CHIRPING)

ELLIOTT: Roby heads to where it happened - Kelly Ingram Park.

ROBY: This is a very sacred place for me.

ELLIOTT: It's catty-corner to 16th Street Baptist Church. Demonstrators deployed from there, but police were waiting with dogs and fire hoses and yellow school buses turned paddy wagons.

ROBY: Several times, I had to run to keep from either being arrested or the dogs being let loose on me.

ELLIOTT: She eventually was arrested. Roby, now 73, was 13 years old at the time. Her memories are raw when she passes a particular magnolia tree.

ROBY: I get an eerie feeling when I come around that tree because of the time that they put the water hose on us. And I remember how Dr. King had us to lock our arms so that the pressure of the water hose would not take us halfway down the street. Sometimes it's just - get hard for you to talk about it.

ELLIOTT: And it was hard for the nation and the world to see back in 1963.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOGS BARKING)

ELLIOTT: This scene - officers turning attack dogs and fire hoses on the young protesters - was pivotal in the civil rights movement. The images sparked outrage and drew new attention to the struggle to end Jim Crow laws that relegated Black people to second-class citizenship. Taking the fight to Birmingham was a deliberate strategy to crack the hardcore-segregated South. Activists here had met fierce resistance trying to desegregate schools, buses and retail businesses. There were beatings and bombings - so many that the city was known as Bombingham.

RANDALL WOODFIN: Although there was resistance to change, this 1963 campaign actually won. I think that's what people need to remember.

ELLIOTT: Birmingham Mayor Randall Woodfin.

WOODFIN: In commemorating 60 years later, there's an opportunity to say, here is the blueprint on how to affect change, how to make change. Here's the strategy - how it got done and won.

TERRY COLLINS: My name's Terry Collins, and I was one of the thousands that participated in the children's march. Birmingham, at that time, was in constant turmoil. We were in a state of siege.

ELLIOTT: Fear and intimidation, Collins says, were part of daily life so much that kids were willing to rise up in ways that their parents could not.

COLLINS: People had economic concerns, and the children were not subject to that. They didn't have a job. They didn't have to be concerned about their careers being ruined and all that. We had nothing to lose.

ELLIOTT: Collins was 15. His younger brother marched alongside him. He recalls the meticulous organization behind the Children's Crusade, including classes in nonviolence. If you could not refrain from retaliation when faced with force, he says, they would find another role for you - perhaps making signs. The demonstrators would divide up and depart from different directions to multiple destinations. He says they were prepared for attacks and even jail.

COLLINS: Normally, people run away from being arrested, but we ran to it. Even though we might have to suffer brutality, we were going through that anyway. The threat of jailing us - so what? We were already in jail, even in our neighborhoods. There was just no fence.

ELLIOTT: After months of mass meetings and training, the Foot Soldiers got their cue that it was time to deploy on local radio.

COLLINS: There was a signal, and that was good goobly woobly (ph). That was the signal that that day - that a certain time, we would walk out of school and all converge downtown.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

SHELLEY STEWART: Good goobly woobly.

(SOUNDBITE OF CYMBAL CRASHING)

STEWART: What's up, everybody?

JANICE WESLEY KELSEY: I woke up that morning with my mind on freedom. I was so excited.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WOKE UP THIS MORNING")

THE FREEDOM SINGERS: (Singing) I woke up this morning with my mind about set on freedom.

ELLIOTT: Janice Wesley Kelsey was 16.

KELSEY: I marched on May 2, 1963. It was a Thursday, and I remember it like yesterday.

ELLIOTT: She, too, was tuned in to DJ Shelley Stewart on WENN-AM for instructions - all in code.

KELSEY: He was saying, we going to have a party in the park. I knew what that meant - Kelly Ingram Park. We going to jump and shout. We going to turn it out. We were going to school, but we weren't going to stay.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

STEWART: Don't forget, kids, there's going to be a party in the park. And don't forget your toothbrushes 'cause luncheon will be served.

ELLIOTT: She slipped a toothbrush and change of underwear in her purse, prepared for jail. She was arrested and held for four days. Kelsey says participating in the Children's Crusade taught her to question a system that left Black students with outdated hand-me-downs from all-white schools and barred them from eating at a lunch counter.

KELSEY: And that was my first indication that something was wrong. I knew about segregation, but my thought was it's just separation. I didn't get the idea of inequality.

ELLIOTT: Violence against activists continued that year leading up to the Ku Klux Klan bombing of 16th Street Baptist Church that killed four Black girls. Kelsey says talking about what happened in 1963 didn't come easily. She was silent for decades. But unless the Foot Soldiers tell their stories, she says, the legacy of the Birmingham movement could be in jeopardy. She's worried, now 60 years later, conservative politicians are trying to curtail the teaching of such history.

KELSEY: It concerns me that some people in leadership positions, like governors and some legislators, are trying to turn back the hands of time. They are putting legislation forward that would say we should not study Black history. And this is a part of American history, and it should not be shut out.

(SOUNDBITE OF BIRD CHIRPING)

ELLIOTT: Back in Kelly Ingram Park, Paulette Roby says it was their faith and the music that kept the Foot Soldiers pressing forward.

ROBY: Those songs - those freedom songs - they really, really, really did a lot for me and got me over.

(Singing) I woke up this morning with my mind set on freedom. I woke up this morning with my mind set on freedom. Hallelu-, hallelu-, hallelujah.

ELLIOTT: Roby says the fight for equal rights isn't over and wonders if the struggle will ever end.

Debbie Elliott, NPR News, Birmingham.

DEGGANS: And our story from Alabama was produced by NPR's Marisa Penaloza.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WE SHALL OVERCOME")

UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS: (Singing) We shall overcome someday.

We'll walk hand in hand.

(Singing) We'll walk hand in hand... Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.