The Making of a Child Crusader
When I look back over the years of my life, I can recount so many experiences that primed me to become one of the children crusaders for the Civil Rights Movement. I am sure that my experiences were the same as thousands of other African American children, growing up in Birmingham, Alabama during the 1950s and 60s.
As I recollect and assemble my memories, I see them as a montage of snippets from various movies. These real life snippets were the events that helped make my contemporaries, and me, willing to risk personal injury, and jail, to bring about changes for a better life for our people.
If I were to make a movie draft of my life, it would include a sound track. That sound track would be of the music that was popular for that time and place. It would be music that inspired us to fight for our rights.
We start this movie in the late 1940s and the 1950s. We were called Colored people then. I therefore will use that term here.
Late 1940s & 50s (“Tuxedo Junction” by Erskine Hawkins)
I want to go
Right back where I belong
Way down south in Birmingham
I mean south in Alabam
There’s an old place where people go
To dance the night away
I was born and raised in a community of Birmingham, Alabama called Ensley/Tuxedo Junction.
Birmingham, Alabama was labeled the most thoroughly segregated city in the United States. It was the model of Jim Crow America. It was designed by the White Ruling Class to instill a sense of inferiority and servitude in the Colored citizens. It was also used to make the ignorant White Working Class people feel that they were special and superior to any and all Colored people.
My daddy was a steelworker at the Tennessee Coal & Iron Company (TCI). The Colored workers at TCI could only work at the common labor jobs…those that were the most dangerous and required heavy lifting. The White steelworkers had locker rooms with showers. The Colored steelworkers had only lockers. They could not clean themselves of the dirt and sweat from working with molten steel. Many had to go home in the sweaty, stinky cloths that they had worked in. Many Whites would often complain that they did not want to ride, stand or sit next to Colored people because they stunk.
Hospitals in the city had wards designated as White Only and Colored Only. The White Only wards were always located on the upper floors of the hospitals and the Colored wards were often located on the ground floors, close to where the hospital utilities were located and the garbage was stored. The Colored wards were always located in places that were prone to the easy spread of disease.
Even the cemeteries of the city were segregated. Cemeteries for Whites were serene and beautiful places. The colored cemeteries were usually unlandscaped and poorly maintained. Even if a Colored person had money, they could not be buried in a White cemetery because it was illegal.
The White neighborhoods had paved streets with streetlights and sanitary sewers. My neighborhood streets were unpaved. They were often covered with gravel or slag from the area steel plants. This was done to keep down mud and dust. The sewers in my neighborhood were just open, mosquito laden ditches. Since we had no proper sewer system, whenever there were heavy rains, our streets would flood. Some of my earliest memories are of floodwaters raising into our home and my momma and daddy placing me and my little sister atop of furniture, to keep us from getting wet.
The city transit buses were of course, segregated. Colored people were restricted to ride in the rear of the bus. The rear of the bus was where the heat and noise of the engine was most pronounced. Colored people had to pay their fare to the bus driver, then walk outside and enter through the rear door of the bus. Many times, the bus driver would take off before some of the Colored passengers could make it to the rear door.
The city sanitation department would not allow Colored men to drive or even sit in the cab of the garbage truck. The driver jobs were reserved for Whites only. The Colored workers had the hard jobs of picking up and dumping trash and garbage into the rear compactor of the garbage truck. The Colored workers always rode on the platforms at the rear of the truck.
Milk and bread delivery truck drivers were always White. They often had Colored helpers that carried the milk or bread into the store. The Colored helpers usually had to ride with the product.
At gasoline service stations, Colored men would often fill up your car with gas, but they could not accept payment from you. They would usually call the White station attendant over to receive the payment. Whites often claimed that Colored people were thieves or dumb, and you could not trust them to handle money.
There were no Colored store clerks or sales people. Those type jobs were reserved for Whites only. The only jobs that Colored people had were the ones that required hard, hard work, usually in extreme temperature, and in unpleasant conditions.
The Alabama State Fair was usually held during the last two weeks of August. The Whites attended the first week of the fair. The Coloreds could only attend during the last few days before the fair ended. This usually coincided with the end of the Dog Days of Summer. Many of the Colored folks believed that there was negative symbolism in the fact that they were only allowed to attend at the end of Dog Days.
The Chamber of Commerce of Ensley held its Christmas parade annually. This was a major event for the entire community. There were no Colored participants in the parade with the exception of the marching band from the Colored high school: Western Olin High. The two White high school bands, Ensley High and Minor High, led the parade, and poor Western Olin was always placed at the end of the parade…right in front of the fire engine that carried Santa Claus. Santa always seemed to throw his candy so that the White children could catch a piece in midair. Whenever he got near a group of Colored children, his aim was off. He seemed to always miss them and the candy would land at the curb (the gutter). Oftentimes some of the Colored children would get down on their hands and knees, and tussle with each other for a piece of hard candy. Momma and daddy would never allow my sisters or me take candy that had touched the ground. They would not allow us to lose our dignity by groveling for candy.
Alabama born and bred singer Nat King Cole appeared on a national network television. Our neighbors spread the word by shouting up and down the street: “Turn on Channel 13…A Colored Man is on.” When people got settled in front of their televisions to watch, rolling horizontal lines appeared on the screen, and the local TV affiliate cut the sound and popped a cartoon graphic of a bucktooth rabbit on the screen. The rabbit was shown chewing on a wire. The caption under the rabbit says “Trouble on the cable.” This usually happened whenever a Colored person was on television.
Fast Forward to 1962
(“People Get Ready” – Curtis Mayfield & The Impressions)
People get ready
There’s a train a-coming
You don’t need no baggage
You just get on board
All you need is faith
To hear the diesels humming
You don’t need no ticket
You just thank the Lord
With a newfound pride, we started calling ourselves Negroes. We got our first Negro mailman. We were so very proud of him. To us he was like a celebrity. We treated him as such. People in my neighborhood would offer him a seat on their front porches, and ice water or lemonade, as he went about his route.
Negroes in Birmingham started a boycott of the stores in downtown Birmingham, demanding jobs and courteous treatment. Students from Miles College demonstrated in front of department stores. Rumors spread throughout Birmingham that the Miles students saw some Negroes leaving Loveman’s and Pizitz Department stores with packages. It was claimed that the students confronted Negro customers coming out of these stores. That they took the purchased merchandise and threw it back into the stores. These rumors scared the Negroes that were prone to shop in spite of the called boycott. As a result, there was one day that not a single Negro shopped in any downtown stores. The merchants that had been reluctant to even talk about jobs and courteous treatment then sat down and negotiated with the leaders of the Birmingham Movement.
In the Collegeville community, Bethel Baptist Church and the home of Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth were bombed. No one was hurt. As the preachers in local churches often told their congregations: “If you have faith, and do what is right, the Lord will put his arms of protection around you.”
In the Smithfield community, Attorney Arthur Shores’ home was bombed. The blast was so powerful, that it shook the home of my grandfather, Houston Todd, that live several blocks away. No one was hurt. “If you have faith, and do what is right, the Lord will put his arms of protection around you.”
The parsonage of Rev. A.D. King (brother of Martin Luther King, Jr.) was bombed in the Ensley community. No one was hurt. “If you have faith, and do what is right, the Lord will put his arms of protection around you.”
A bomb was exploded on Center Street in Smithfield community. It was designed to draw people out of their homes. Ten minutes later, a second bomb exploded. This bomb contained shrapnel. It was designed to maim and kill. No one was hurt. “If you have faith, and do what is right, the Lord will put his arms of protection around you.”
A bomb was found in the incinerator of Western Olin High School. The bomb malfunctioned and did not go off. Again, “If you have faith, and do what is right, the Lord will put his arms of protection around you.”
The Children’s Crusade begins—School children were taught about non-violent direct action by staff of SCLC [Southern Christian Leadership Conference] and the Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights (a.k.a. NAACP). Mass Meetings were held at Negro churches throughout the city. These meetings were basically worship services, where the Holy Scripture was used to teach nonviolent direct action. Communication to the masses of students and adults was done by mimeograph sheets, hand printed fliers, and the announcements from the Negro disc jockeys broadcasting on the two Negro-owned radio stations.
My high school principal, Professor P. D. Jackson, was a man that we students feared. At the same time we also loved and respected him. His word was the law at Western Olin High School. He ran a “tight ship.” He always demanded the best from both students and faculty. Professor Jackson called a special assembly of the student body, because he had heard that students from all over Birmingham would be gathering in downtown Birmingham to demonstrate for civil rights. During the assembly, Professor Jackson warned us not to leave school for the demonstrations. One student, Bobby McDaniel defied Professor Jackson. Bobby stood up and walked out of the assembly. A few other students followed his lead. This was the first time that anyone had ever disobeyed Professor Jackson. The rest of us students were then herded back into class by our teachers. Once back in class, some of the students opened the classroom windows and jumped out, to go and join the demonstrations. The teachers tried to maintain order in their classrooms but were unsuccessful. Professor Jackson then capitulated, and allowed the teachers to let their student leave school.
I and several of my friends then walked the six miles from Western Olin High School to the Kelly Ingram Park in downtown Birmingham. On the way, we met up with students from the other Negro high schools (Ullman, Hayes, Carver, Wenonah, Westfield and Fairfield Industrial) and some elementary schools. We arrived to join the demonstrations a bit late and were eager to express ourselves. If it was necessary to get arrested, we were willing to do so. In our young world of peer-to-peer pressure, to be “jailed for freedom” was considered a badge of courage, valor and honor. By the time we got to downtown to demonstrate, the jails were full of school children and some adults. The police then brought in school buses to take the overflow of children demonstrators to the Alabama State Fairgrounds. There were not enough school buses or paddy wagons available to take my schoolmates and me to the Fairgrounds. We were left standing on the street. Since my schoolmates and I wanted to get arrested and go to jail for our freedom, we decided that we would walk the four miles to the Fairgrounds. Our plan was to tell the police guards there that we were part of the demonstrations. Once we arrived, we found that the doors to the enclosed area under the grandstands were not locked, and that there were no policemen or guards present. The police department had been overwhelmed by the size of the demonstrations and there were no policemen available to act as guards. Many of the students that had been jailed under the grandstands simply walked out and went home. Since I was disappointed that I could not legitimately claim that I had gone to jail for my freedom, I decided to go home. I left the schoolmates that had accompanied me and walked the two miles to my home in Ensley. I had dinner as usual with my little sister and parents. After dinner, we turned on the evening news to see what had happened in downtown Birmingham that day. I was elated to see video of many of my friends and schoolmates on national television, braving fire hoses and police dogs. I was disappointed that I had not been fortunate enough to have been arrested and gone to jail with them. I did not tell Momma or Daddy that I had been part of the demonstrations. They did not ask me if I had been involved. I think that they kind of knew that I had been.
September 15, 1963
The KKK [Ku Klux Klan] bombs the 16th Street Baptist Church. They kill Addie Mae Collins—14, Cynthia Wesley—14, Carol Robinson—14 and Denise McNair—11. Also killed that day were Virgil Ware—13 and Johnny Robinson—16. Virgil was shot while riding his bicycle by a carload of White teenagers. Johnny was shot by Birmingham Police officers. Our faith was tested. We wondered if the Lord was still there protecting us.
July 2, 1964
As a result of the Birmingham Children’s Crusade, President Lyndon Johnson signs the 1964 Civil Rights Act. This landmark piece of civil rights legislation outlawed major forms of discrimination against racial, ethnic, national and religious minorities, and women. It ended unequal application of voter registration requirements and racial segregation in schools, at the workplace and by facilities that served the general public. Lyndon Baines Johnson…a southern White man, recited a line from the anthem of the Civil Rights Movement: “and we shall overcome.” Our faith may have briefly faltered, but now it was fully renewed.
(“We’re a Winner” by Curtis Mayfield & The Impressions)
We’re a winner and never let anybody say
“Boy, you can’t make it
‘Cause a feeble mind is in your way”
No more tears do we cry
And we have finally dried our eyes
We movin’ on up, movin’ on up
Lord have mercy
We’re movin’ on up now, we’re movin’ on up
(Fade To Black)
Melvin Todd shared this story with Kids in Birmingham 1963 in July 2014. He had first prepared it for a Black History Month presentation that he made at St. James A.M.E. Zion Church in Perth Amboy, New Jersey.