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Some children, however, were already participating. In the harshly segregated city of Birmingham, Alabama, Janice Kelsey , a young black girl, was attending large civil rights meetings, and she was ready to “really do something about all of these inequities that we were experiencing.” Her chance to do that came in May 1963 in what became known as the Children’s Crusade. Although involving black children was risky, Martin Luther King decided that it was important to give them “ a sense of their own stake in freedom.”
The plan was for children to leave school and peacefully march to downtown Birmingham to talk with the mayor about ending segregation. Some children participated with their parents’ permission, other without.
For three days, waves of children peacefully marched in Birmingham, despite being met with violence. Hundreds were manhandled, clubbed by police, bitten by police dogs, blasted by high-pressure fire hoses that tore off their clothes and flesh, and arrested. Reports and photographs of the brutal treatment appeared on television and in newspapers. “The nation was so outraged by how children were being treated in a nonviolent movement,” recalled Janice Kelsey, “until it touched the hearts of people who otherwise might not have noticed what was going on.” City officials were forced to curb the police and desegregate downtown. Everyone in jail was released. Involving children, said Martin Luther King “was one of the wisest moves we made. It brought new impact to the crusade.”
The list of civil rights children is long. For example, nine months before Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on a bus to a white person, fifteen-year-old Claudette Colvin was arrested and put in jail for refusing to give up her seat. Eight-year-old Shey Webb was the youngest person to participate in a Selma, Alabama march that became known as Bloody Sunday. “We were just people,” Shey said, “ordinary people, and we did it.”
Praise for Penny Colman's book Girls: A History of Growing Up Female in America:
“Fascinating look at a seldom studied topic. . . .Among the girls included are pioneers, former slaves, mill workers, children of farmers, and immigrants. They often speak for themselves through excerpts from letters, diary entries, and published memoirs . . . The author’s thorough research, inclusiveness, and accessible style make this book an essential resource.” School Library Journal
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On September 15, 1963, a single event changed the course of the civil rights movement. Would you like to know what it was? You'll find out tomorrow from Larry Brimner.