In WE’VE GOT A JOB: THE 1963 BIRMINGHAM CHILDREN’S MARCH (Peachtree, February 2012), author Cynthia Levinson shines a light on a dark, oft-forgotten chapter in the American struggle for civil rights. Impeccable research, including direct quotes from marchers themselves, has resulted in an expertly crafted, three dimensional true story. More than a must read, this is a potential catalyst to spark a conversation with children and teens about civil rights and humanity.
In 1963, Birmingham, Alabama was the most segregated city in America. Racist white, dictatorial community leaders had twisted into oblivion the U.S. Supreme court ruling that declared segregation of public facilities unconstitutional. Birmingham was a dam of injustice ready to burst.
Levinson introduces the ensuing flood of events through the accounts of four pivotal young protestors, Washington (Wash) Booker, III, James Stewart, Arnetta Streeter, and the youngest marcher, nine-year-old Audrey Hendricks.
African American citizens wanted nothing more than to see the end of segregation. Though black participants of the civil rights movement abided by their own “Ten Commandments of Nonviolence,” they frequently fell victim to the KKK, bombings in homes and churches, intentional attacks by police dogs, and the full force of fire hoses.
“When video of children being hosed across asphalt and charged by growling dogs appeared on the news that night, America started to pay attention to how Birmingham treated its Negro population. One child was photographed holding up a hand-lettered sign that read, ‘We’re Human, Too.'”
When negotiation efforts repeatedly failed, organizers like Martin Luther King, Jr, Fred Shuttlesworth, and James Bevel became desperate. It was decided the only way to draw attention to Birmingham’s civil rights crisis was to peacefully and intentionally get arrested. The crusade was informally dubbed “Project Confrontation or Project C.”
“Project C would pit blacks against whites in nonviolent ways by sitting at segregated lunch counters, parks, city hall. They picketed businesses and let Birmingham know that they would no longer ‘endure the laws and custom of segregation, brutal treatment by the police and injustice of the courts…’ They were willing to fill up the jails.”
But, when the adults had to return to work to earn a living, four thousand young people eagerly rose to the challenge. They came in droves, in peaceful protest, until the city, county, and surrounding county jails were beyond capacity.
“Since the beginning of Project C, less than five weeks earlier, a reported 2,425 people, almost all of them students, had been arrested. The jails and fairgrounds were filled to bursting. Downtown businesses were empty. The whole world was watching.”
The world continued to watch until change finally came to Birmingham. “Sobered. Angry. Determined. This is the way many people of Birmingham, the country and the White House felt in September 1963. Sobered by racism. Angry about violence. Determined to gain civil rights.”
Archival photographs, informational sidebars, a timeline of Birmingham’s segregation challenges, and a map of the city are included as a supplemental bonus.
The events in WE’VE GOT A JOB pre-date my generation yet I’m left wondering why I’ve never heard of Children’s March. How could I not have known about the brave young people who, despite unimaginable adversity, shifted the balance of the civil rights movement? Children! The story, as in the era, is about cruelty, injustice, bravery, determination. It’s a story about humanity that is woven into our collective history. As they say, if we do not know where we come from, how can we know where we are going?
Though Levinson herself was an Ohio teenager during tenuous 1963, and remembers reading about the marches and the treatment of protestors in her youth, it wasn’t until she was researching civil rights music for Cobblestone magazine that she learned the role of children in the Birmingham crusade. In Levinson’s words, “Many people, I realized, needed to know how a Children’s March changed American history. So, I set out to learn what happened.”
I, for one, am very glad she did.