In 1963 I was 9 years old, in the third grade, and not paying much attention to the conversations of all the adults who were apprehensive because the Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth had asked King to help lead the local civil rights movement.
Shuttlesworth, whom I interviewed years later as a reporter, was head of the Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights, an organization formed out of necessity after the state banned the NAACP.
Shuttlesworth asked for King’s help because the Birmingham movement was losing its energy. King agreed to come because his national movement needed a spark after demonstrations in Albany, Ga., failed to integrate anything. In a telegram to President John F. Kennedy, King called Birmingham “by far the worst big city in race relations in the United States.”
I’m sure he was right. But a 9-year-old black boy living in a segregated world doesn’t experience much discrimination. My only memory of how segregation affected me at that age is of when my mother couldn’t find a colored bathroom for her child when we were downtown shopping. My humiliating recollection is that we found an empty alley in time.
The pastor of my church was the father of Condoleezza Rice. The Rev. John Wesley Rice Jr and Shuttlesworth were friends, but disagreed on tactics. Like many blacks, especially among the middle class, Rev. Rice believed integration would come eventually without the marches and demonstrations that might become violent. They believed education was the key to prove blacks were intellectually equal and deserved to be treated as such.
My parents believed that, too, though we were hardly middle class. My father was a truck driver for a furniture store. My mother was a stay-at-home mom. With my four brothers, we had lived in a housing project since I was born. My parents made sure we put school first, to succeed in any world – black or white. Bad grades were unacceptable. Bad conduct meant punishment at school and at home.
Our parents’ focus on education was uppermost in our minds when my older brother Don and I were confronted on the way to school by two older youths who said black students were boycotting school that day to show support for King’s demonstrations. I don’t recall all that was said, but we went to school. Most children did, but others marched.
King’s top aide, Wyatt Tee Walker, had devised a four-stage strategy for their Birmingham campaign. It began with small-scale sit-ins and escalated to store boycotts and mass marches designed to fill the jails and garner national news coverage. After several weeks, King made the decision to add children to the mix.
Hundreds of teenagers and younger children filed out of Sixteenth Street Baptist Church where they were greeted by Police Commissioner Eugene “Bull” Connor and his storm troopers, who treated adult and child alike. The marchers were beaten and knocked from their feet by powerful water cannons operated by city firefighters and then taken to jail.
The resulting bad publicity after the world press reported the story in articles, photographs, and film was too much for a city that once had hopes of competing with Atlanta to become the commerce center of the South. City officials signed what Connor called the “lyingest, face-saving” document he had ever seen – an agreement to remove “Whites Only” signs, integrate lunch counters, and hire black clerks at department stores.
Those modest gains were too much for segregationists who, like some people today when it comes to gun control, saw any concession as the first step down the slippery slope to total surrender. The agreement was signed May 10, 1963. That night, bombs were set off at the home of King’s brother, A.D. King, and at the black-owned Gaston Motel, where King had stayed during the Birmingham campaign.
This story is excerpted from an article, “The memories of a black child in Birmingham,” by Harold Jackson, first published in the Philadelphia Inquirer on February 24, 2013, and used here with the express permission of the author