Civil Rights

50 Years Later, Recalling the Young ‘Foot Soldiers’ of the Civil Rights Struggle

Photo courtesy Birmingham Civil Rights Institute

Child marchers, sprayed with fire hoses in May 1963. Photo courtesy Birmingham Civil Rights Institute

BIRMINGHAM, Ala. — In May 1963, thousands of Birmingham school children faced police dogs, fire hoses, and possible arrest to demonstrate against segregation. Now, 50 years later, those who were part of what became known as the “Children’s March” say they don’t want their story to be forgotten.

“We were doing this not just for ourselves but for some higher purpose,” said one of the young marchers, Freeman Hrabowski III. “It focused on civil rights for all Americans.”

Hrabowski is now president of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. He was 12 when he marched in Birmingham and was arrested for parading without a permit. He and hundreds of other children were held in custody for five days before being released.

Experts say the children’s crusade helped galvanize the civil rights struggle at a time when efforts were flagging.

“That was really the tipping point in a tipping year,” Pulitzer Prize-winning author Taylor Branch, who has written a series of books about the civil rights movement, told the PBS program “Religion & Ethics NewsWeekly.”

Watch Birmingham and the Children’s March on PBS. See more from Religion & Ethics NewsWeekly.

An Image Beloved, A Prophet Rejected

World Telegram & Sun photo by Dick DeMarsico. / Wikimedia Commons

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., in 1964, World Telegram & Sun photo by Dick DeMarsico. / Wikimedia Commons

This August will mark the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, and there will rightly be much remembrance and celebration of its place in American history. But there is another anniversary that our nation, and especially its Christians, would do well to acknowledge, investigate, and ruminate.

Forty-five years ago yesterday, Dr. King arrived in Memphis, Tenn., to support a sanitation workers’ strike seeking to unionize. He was assassinated the next day — the anniversary we today remember — and in a sad irony our nation began the sanitation of his legacy. Indeed, King’s decision to join the Memphis struggle was just one of many acts that clash with what David Sirota calls the “Santa Clausified” image of King that we pass to our youth. 

Why We Can't Wait

Photo by Sandi Villarreal / Sojourners

Martin Luther King, Jr., statue in Kelly Ingram Park, Birmingham, Ala. Photo by Sandi Villarreal / Sojourners

It’s been 50 years since several significant events of the civil rights movement of the 1960s occurred, yet our society is still plagued with systemic racism. It’s been almost 150 years since we abolished slavery in this country, yet many are still enslaved daily by the oppression of discrimination and poverty. While significant strides in equality and justice have taken place, new systems of injustices have been instated and threaten the integrity of our much-stated rights of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”

I am most presently thinking of the system of the “New Jim Crow,” something author and advocate Michelle Alexander has awakened society to with the recent publication of her book with that title. The New Jim Crowrefers to the web of injustices related to mass incarceration and the stripping of basic rights of returning citizens reminiscent of the Jim Crow laws of our nation’s history. Today, returning citizens face “legalized discrimination” from employers and landlords, making it extremely difficult for them to get a job or a place to live. Additionally, in many states they are not allowed to sit on a jury or express their right to vote, meaning their voices are stifled.

Alabama Civil Rights Site Declared National Historic Landmark

Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Ala. Photo by Sandi Villarreal / Sojourners

Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Ala. Photo by Sandi Villarreal / Sojourners

On March 7, 1965, 600 people began a march toward Montgomery, Ala., from Brown Chapel AME in Selma. The group, let by civil rights activists like now-Congressman John Lewis and Rev. Hosea Williams, were stopped by state troopers on horseback. When the marchers refused to back away — standing their ground on the Edmund Pettus Bridge — the troopers attacked, beating, trampling, and tear gassing the participants.

Today, that bridge made famous on Bloody Sunday, was declared at National Historic Landmark, along with 12 other sites, by U.S. Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar.

The Forgotten

Juan Camilo Bernal /

Juan Camilo Bernal /

Charles Carpenter
George Murray
Nolan Harmon
Paul Hardin
Joseph Durick
Earl Stallings
Edward Ramage
Milton Grafman

In towns all across America, streets are not named after them. School children do not learn about them. No one waits in line to see the homes where they were born. They are ... simply forgotten.

They weren’t necessarily bad men. They weren’t unimportant men. They were men of influence, men with a voice and the respect of their community. Most would have agreed; they were good men, according to one, “men of genuine good will.”  While evil men are remembered and great men are enshrined, these men … just forgotten.

They are forgotten for being on the wrong side of history. Men forgotten for being silent when “a word fitly spoken” could have made a difference. Men who are forgotten for valuing comfort and stability over justice and compassion. Forgotten because they were unwilling to call out the status quo, and show it for it was … cruel and unjust.

These are the eight men on the other side of Martin Luther King’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.” The recipients. Eight well educated white pastors, priests, and rabbis who by God’s providence led reputable congregations in Birmingham, Ala., in 1963.

Hearing Stories of the Past

Storytelling, Ivelin Radkov /

Storytelling, Ivelin Radkov /

I walked down the newly plowed row with my grandpa, feeling the warm, red clay on the soles of my bare feet and listening to his stories and words of advice. I held a tomato plant in my hands, the rich, black potting soil falling off of the small, vulnerable roots, as he knelt and dug a place for it in the garden. “Hey,” he’d often start, “here's something my daddy told me when I was little. ‘God gave you two ears and one mouth because He wants you to listen twice as much as you speak. If you do that, you'll learn something. If you don't, you won't.’”

The memory of walking with my grandpa in his garden came back to me after I read about The Faith and Politics Institute's Civil Rights Pilgrimage in which more than 250 people (including 30 members of Congress) took a three-day tour of civil rights landmarks from Tuscaloosa to Birmingham to Montgomery to Selma. The participants in the pilgrimage got to hear the stories of the struggle for justice from the people who were in those places 50 years ago. I especially remember grandpa’s stories about his childhood on the family dairy farm in Greenville, S.C. in the 1920s. I liked to hear stories about the black folks who came and worked with him and his family. I heard hard work in his voice and saw struggle in his face when he talked about those times.

Congressman John Lewis Tells the Story of the March from Selma to Montgomery (VIDEO)

Sandi Villarreal / Sojourners for the Faith and Politics Institute

Congressman John Lewis speaks on the road to Birmingham. Sandi Villarreal / Sojourners

This past weekend, The Faith and Politics Institute led a three-day Congressional trip to visit Civil Rights landmarks across Alabama — from Tuscaloosa to Birmingham to Montgomery to Selma. It was an incredibly moving, emotionally exhausting, soul-quenching pilgrimage as we journeyed along with heroes of the Civil Rights movement and experienced their stories. 

One such hero is Congressman John Lewis. A highlight of the trip for me is recorded at the jump. 

Joe Biden, John Lewis, and the Long Road to Reconciliation

Sandi Villarreal / Sojourners for the Faith and Politics Institute

Delegation sings 'We Shall Overcome' hand-in-hand at the Civil Rights Memorial in Birmingham, Ala. Sandi Villarreal / Sojourners

This year marks a long list of anniversaries in our nation's long march for civil rights: We now mark 150 years since the Emancipation Proclamation; and 50 years since the Stand in the Schoolhouse Door, Martin Luther King, Jr.'s "Letter from Birmingham Jail," the March on Washington, the bombing at Sixteenth Street Baptist Church that killed four little girls, and the murder of Medgar Evers in his driveway.

In remembrance of the sacred journey, The Faith and Politics Institute's Civil Rights Pilgrimage drew more than 250 people, including 30 members of Congress, for a three-day tour of civil rights landmarks and first-hand testimonies from the movement's leaders. Throughout the pilgrimage — moving from Tuscaloosa to Birmingham to Montgomery to Selma — the delegation learned, grew, and continued the conversation together: white and black, Republican and Democrat, man and woman, senior and child. We all returned to Washington, D.C., and to our homes across the country, with a renewed sense of responsibility for the common good.

A number of events made the term 'reconciliation' mean more than the definition I had somehow created for myself over the past 30 years. Reconciliation is calling the person who beat and humiliated you 'brother.' Reconciliation is sharing a platform, sharing a deeply intertwined story — and sharing an authentic embrace — with the offspring of your parents' enemies. 

[Photo Gallery at the jump.]

Rosa Parks Statue Unveiled at Capitol, Celebrated by AME Church

RNS photo by Adelle M. Banks

A bronze statue of civil rights heroine Rosa Parks was unveiled Thursday at the U.S. Capitol. RNS photo by Adelle M. Banks

WASHINGTON — A bronze statue of civil rights heroine Rosa Parks was unveiled at the U.S. Capitol Wednesday, a day for members of her African Methodist Episcopal Church to celebrate one of their own.

President Barack Obama, capping an hourlong ceremony in Statuary Hall, recalled the desegregation of public buses in Montgomery, Ala., after a yearlong boycott that was sparked by Parks’ simple act of defiance: refusing to move to the back of the bus.

“And with that victory, the entire edifice of segregation, like the ancient walls of Jericho, began to slowly come tumbling down,” he said before hundreds gathered just outside the Capitol Rotunda.

As Parks was hailed for her civil rights achievements, members and leaders of her African Methodist Episcopal Church celebrated Parks taking her place among the monuments to American icons from every state and walk of life.

Parks was a stewardess, who helped with Communion and baptisms in her local AME congregation in Detroit, and also a deaconess, the highest position for a laywoman in the denomination. She died in 2005 at age 92.