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The Children's Crusade

By Kate Rhode, in What if Nobody Forgave? and Other Stories, edited by Colleen McDonald (Boston: Skinner House, 2003). Used with permission.

You may wish to have an adult storyteller begin this story, and have a child reader take over at the point where the text says, "The children heard about the decision and told their friends." Make sure all storytellers have time to read the story and prepare themselves to tell it before the session begins.

Invite all the listeners to rise, as they are able, at the part of the story where the children stand up.

"What are we going to do?" asked Martin Luther King, Jr., the well-known American civil rights leader, as he sat with his friends at a meeting in the 16th St. Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama . King, who was trying to lead the black people of Birmingham in their struggle to end segregation, was worried that he and his friends were going to fail in their mission. Nevertheless, he rose from his chair at the front of the group.

"Who will demonstrate with me tomorrow in a brave attempt to end segregation? Who will risk going to jail for the cause?"

Often, four hundred people would show up for meetings like this one, but only 35 or so would volunteer to protest and not all those volunteers would actually show to protest. Those who did would gather downtown and parade through the streets, carry signs, chant, and sing, sending the message that segregation had to end.

In King's day, segregation meant that black people were not allowed to do the same things or go to the same places as white people. Black people couldn't go to most amusement parks, swimming pools, parks, hotels, or restaurants. They had to go to different schools that weren't as nice as the schools for white kids. They had to use separate drinking fountains, and they could and did get in trouble for breaking this rule. They weren't allowed to use the same bathrooms; many times, there were no public bathrooms at all that they could use. They weren't allowed to try on clothes before they bought them, like white people could.

Black people didn't think this was fair. Some white people didn't think it was fair either. In the 1950s and 1960s, many thousands of people worked to end segregation. But in many places, especially in the southern part of the United States , segregation was the law, and if black people tried to go somewhere they weren't supposed to go, they could and did get arrested, beaten, and even killed. In the spring of 1963, Martin Luther King, Jr. went to Birmingham, Alabama, one of the largest and most heavily segregated cities in America , to bring people together to change the law.

You see, the people were very scared. The sheriff in Birmingham was named Bull Connor. And black people didn't know what Bull Connor might do to them if he caught them protesting. Martin Luther King had already been in jail once, and others were afraid to follow him. Besides, they weren't sure protesting would do any good.

Dr. King, seeing that no one answered his call, again tried to inspire the group. "The struggle will be long," he said. "We must stand up for our rights as human beings. Who will demonstrate with me, and if necessary, be ready to go to jail for it?"

There was a pause, and then a whole group of people stood up. Someone gasped. All the people who stood up were children.

(Leader—Invite all the children in the room to stand up, as they are able.)

The adults told them to sit down but they didn't.

Martin Luther King thanked the children and told them he appreciated the offer but that he couldn't ask them to go to jail. They still wouldn't sit down. They wanted to help.

That night, Dr. King talked with a close group of friends about the events of the day. "What are we going to do?" he asked. "The only volunteers we got were children. We can't have a protest with children!" Everyone nodded, except Jim Bevel. "Wait a minute," said Jim. "If they want to do it, I say bring on the children."

"But they are too young!" the others said. Then Jim asked, "Are they too young to go to segregated schools?"

"No."

"Are they too young to be kept out of amusement parks?"

"No!"

"Are they too young to be refused a hamburger in a restaurant?"

"No!" said the others.

"Then they are not too young to want their freedom." That night, they decided that any child old enough to join a church was old enough to march.

The children heard about the decision and told their friends. When the time came for the march, a thousand children, teenagers, and college students gathered. The sheriff arrested them and put them in jail. The next day even more kids showed up—some of their parents and relatives too, and even more the next day and the next day. Soon lots of adults joined in. Finally, a thousand children were locked up together in a "children's jail." And there was no more room for anyone else.

Sheriff Connor had done awful things to try and get protesters to turn back. He had turned big police dogs loose and allowed them to bite people. He had turned on fire hoses that were so strong the force of the water could strip the bark off of trees. He had ordered the firefighters to point the hoses at the children and push them down the street. People all over the country and all over the world saw the pictures of the dogs, the fire hoses, and the children, and they were furious.

Now the white people of Birmingham began to worry. All over the world people were saying bad things about their city. Even worse, everyone was afraid to go downtown to shop because of the dogs and hoses. So they decided they had to change things. A short time later, the black people and white people of Birmingham made a pact to desegregate the city and let everyone go to the same places.

Today when people tell this story, many talk about Martin Luther King, Jr. We should also remember the thousands of brave children and teenagers whose courage helped to defeat Bull Connor and end segregation in Birmingham and the rest of the United States .

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Last updated on Sunday, November 9, 2014.

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