All fired up and ready to participate again
My name is Mamie King-Chalmers and this is my photo. I was one of the young adults that fought in Birmingham, Alabama, in 1963. That photo is important to me because it shows my participation in the civil rights struggle and it’s a legacy for my children and my grandchildren to carry on.
During those times I had faith, courage, and I was willing to do anything to help with the conditions that was being brought upon us in the South. My whole family was involved in the civil rights struggle. My father said, “We’re going down and get involved.” That’s what I believed in and that’s what I did, and that’s what I will continue to do.
My great grandfather used to tell us how he was being treated in Morango County, Alabama. He worked the fields from sun up to sun down. We tried to get him to move to Birmingham with the family, but he always said, “Why would I leave? I don’t have any place to call my home but this place and I can’t leave because this man own me.” And it was Mr. John King, that he lived on his plantation. He feared leaving. Every year he would pick cotton and crops, but every year, the man said “You didn’t pick enough. You got to pick some more.”
[When] I was about 17, I worked at this lady’s house on Graymont Avenue. She was paying two dollars a day, so she was gonna give me some dinner. I smelled some soup cooking and I thought I would get some of that soup. I asked her where was my food. She said, “It’s in the garage.” I went in the garage looking for it. I couldn’t find it. She told me, “Go over there and look on the table.” I was looking for steaming soup, but what I got was a cracked plate, a cracked bowl, some moldy bread, a hotdog that she had in her freezer for a long time, a small can of pork and beans, and a jar of Kool-Aid. I looked at it and I told her, “I can’t eat this.” She say, “You don’t have anything. You’ll have to eat it.” I said, “No, I refuse to eat it.” I told her to give me what I had made that day. It was about 12:30. She reached in her pocket and gave me 35 cents. Mind you, I was making two dollars a day. I left her house NEVER to do domestic work again.
During 1963, we heard of a man coming to town. His name was Martin Luther King, Jr., and he would be speaking at Sixteenth Street Baptist Church, and we could join him there every day and every night to those mass meetings. Students left school to go to the march, but I was 22 during the time. I saw an opportunity that I needed to participate in the demonstrations. I went to Sixteenth Street Baptist Church and listened to Dr. King talk about the march and talk about the injustice that was being done in Birmingham. I had experienced a lot of the injustice throughout the stores, the supermarkets, the buses.
A lot of people don’t know – even don’t care to know – that you couldn’t go in a shoe store and buy shoes and try them on. They would put a string on the floor [to measure] the length, but they never measured the width. You couldn’t go in the dress shops and try on clothes. They would put a tape measure around your waist to see what size you wore and you couldn’t bring them back. You couldn’t go in the restaurant and order food, you had to stand on the sidewalk and they’d take the order. You could get on the bus at the front of the bus, put your money in the coin box, get off and go to the back door, and the bus driver would drive off and leave you standing there. Who you was gonna call when they control and own everything? No one you could report them to.
He [Dr King] would be at Sixteenth Street Baptist Church at 6 o’clock. So my family went down to the church. A crowd of people was standing there waiting to get in. Dr. King explained to us that this is a non-violent march. “You might get kicked, you might get spit on, but tell the person that’s doing it, ‘I still love you just the same.’” We had intensive training, how to conduct yourself, how not to rebel. That particular night Dr. King was saying some of the same things that I wanted to hear. He said some people might lose their life, some people might go to jail. I didn’t care what happened. I wanted to take a part into the civil rights struggle. So he passed out a sheet of paper, told us to sign our names on it in case we get arrested, they would get us out. They didn’t have any money to get us out of jail. They would have to send up North. People up North sent money down there to get us out of jail. So I signed up for five days, to go to jail.
We went to Bohemian Bakery because they didn’t serve black people. They gave us money to purchase items. What we were supposed to do was just walk in and grab whatever they had on the counter. So we grabbed salads, cakes, and chips, or whatever they had, sit down and start eating them. They called the paddy wagon. Paddy wagon came and loaded us up and took us down to the county jail. And I stayed in there five days. It was one of the most horrible experiences. The conditions where we was, the civil rights people, was horrible in there.
This photo was taken after I got out of jail. About six, seven days later they was still marching. I went down again. This incident happened in Kelly Ingram Park right across the street from Sixteenth Street Baptist Church. Every day we would meet right in that park, and we was there getting ready, getting our assignments, where we was going to march from that day. Eugene “Bull” Connor, the police commissioner, ordered the fire department to put the water hose on us. “Put the water hose on them niggers so they wouldn’t have to take a bath.” And that’s what they did. And they pushed us against the wall with the water hose. And today I’m deaf in one ear because of that.
[Recalling the August 1963 March on Washington, three months later] On that hot day, in August ’63, I was eager, as they say I was all fired up and ready to participate again, do anything that I could. One of the things that inspired me was when Dr. King said, “I have a dream.” If we can get the younger people in this generation to see what we struggled for 50 years ago, I think they would understand what went on during that period of time. We need more young people to get involved in all the events that’s happening in the city and around the world and be engaged in the struggle.
We fought hard in the civil rights struggle. We fought to make things better and to make things right for our people. A lot of blood was shed. A lot of people lost their lives so they could get where they are today. We’ve come a long ways, but we’ve got a long ways to go.
I believe I made a difference in what I did. I’d do it again if I have to. I have taught other children and I’ve taught my children, so I think I’ve made a great impact.
This story is Mamie King-Chalmers’ first-person account, excerpted and compiled in November 2014 from several sources: a short video made in February 2014 for the “His Dream, Our Stories” project (http://hisdreamourstories.com/2014/02/06/mamie-chalmers-2/); an audio interview conducted in April 2014 for Black Slate podcast; and a video clip that Ms. King-Chalmers recorded in support of The Secret Weapon project (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KWFDrvAw5Ig&feature=youtube_gdata_player.
The story is published at Kids in Birmingham 1963 in November 2014, with permission from Mamie King-Chalmers. Following a long life of activism and sharing her story, Ms. King-Chalmers passed away in December 2022. See more in her obituary, here.