Role of Young People in the Civil Rights Movement
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Young African-Americans played a big role in the history of the Civil Rights Movement. One incident was in Birmingham, Alabama in 1963. Led by Martin Luther King, Jr., the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) came to desegregate Birmingham in 1963. After an initial surge of activity involving numerous protests and arrests, the movement stalled. The SCLC leadership decided that the best way to regain the momentum was to involve young people. This strategy would be less disruptive to Black families, since parents could continue working while young Blacks served the necessary jail time. High school, junior high and even elementary school students were recruited to march out of school and be arrested. On May 2, 1963, 959 children were arrested; the next day 1000 more children marched to protest discrimination. This same day Police Chief Bull Conner turned powerful fire hoses on the young protesters. Shown on the national news, this grisly spectacle shocked the nation. By May 6th, 2500 Blacks-2000 of them children-had been arrested. Feeling the pressure from the movement and fearful that riots would tear the city apart, most White businesses agreed to integrate their establishments.
When you read the following testimonials from people who were involved in the segregation of Birmingham when they were children, ask yourself how you would feel in their position, at their age. Try to imagine how you would feel if you were their parents.
Audrey Faye Hendricks
"The night before at a meeting, they told us we'd be arrested. I went home and told my mother that I wanted to go. She just said, 'Okay.' I was in third grade. . . . I did not go to school the day that I went on the march. I wasn't nervous or scared. We started from Sixteenth Street Church. . . . [We] marched about half a block. Then the police put us in paddy wagons, and we went to juvenile Hall. There were lots of kids, but I think I may have been the youngest child in there. I was nine. . . . I was in jail seven days. . . . We slept in little rooms with bunk beds. There were about twelve of us in a room. . . . My parents could not get word to me for seven days."
"I didn't know when I left home for school that day that I was going to participate. . . We left school after lunch. . . I was seventeen . . . I was fortunate. I was there just one night . . . I was glad to get out. My parents didn't know when I left home that Friday that I was going to participate. Once we were arrested, we couldn't call our parents. . . . When I got out, they said that they didn't want to tell me to go, but they were glad that I went. They were proud of me."
"When I got involved in the demonstrations in 1963, I was in high school. My parents supported my decision to get involved, but they were not involved. I went to a lot of mass meetings. . . . We knew about them from two radio disk jockeys [who] used to call the meetings 'a party.' . . . I was sixteen in 1963, and I expected to be arrested. I wanted to be arrested. . . . . Jail was a totally different experience. . . . We weren't treated like kids. . . . our intent was not to be bailed out. . . . the first thing I did was to call my mother. 'Don't worry about me . . . I'll be okay. . . . Whatever you do don't come and get me out.' . . . I was in for ten days."
From: Freedom's Children: Young Civil Rights Activists Tell Their Own Stories.