Following the conclusion of the three-day trial, the judge found each of the named leaders guilty. The ministers’ actions constituted “obvious acts of contempt” and “deliberate and blatant denials of the authority of this court and its order,” Jenkins ruled. In addition to violating the order, he maintained, the accused had “used” their positions as ministers “to encourage and incite others” to do so. The judge imposed a $50 ﬁne on each minister for criminal contempt of court and sentenced each to ﬁve days in jail. The defense attorneys immediately appealed Jenkins’s decision, postponing the jail sentences.
While the appeal went forward, King, Abernathy, and other Project C leaders regrouped to continue the battle against segregation in Birmingham. “We will march again, again, and again as long as we are denied our constitutional rights,” King promised.
The appeal failed, and despite King’s brilliant rhetorical defense of mass civil disobedience in his letter, the movement sputtered while he and its leaders sat in jail, and it continued to lag even after the ministers’ release. Not even King could draw the volunteers — the “troops” — needed to sustain the protests or gain major national attention. The press lost interest, and volunteers were dwindling. Defeat loomed. Some of King’s advisers began whispering that he should resign himself to the loss and quietly leave the city.
Others, however, suggested that if they lacked protesters, Project C should recruit school-aged children. While youth activists had participated in sit-ins and demonstrations, SCLC had never recruited children en masse. King expressed deep skepticism about the idea; the Birmingham city jail was “no place for children.” Others inside and outside of SCLC and ACMHR agreed, and when Birmingham’s Black middle-class leaders caught wind of the idea, they angrily rejected it. How, they asked, could any respectable person approve of the idea of serving up little Black boys and girls to Bull Connor?
But the movement’s impending collapse eventually compelled King and others to relent. Movement veterans Walker, Young, Rev. James Bevel, and Dorothy Cotton quickly got to work. Focusing on area high school students, they set out to conscript prom queens and kings, athletes, academic standouts, and other school leaders to join Project C’s marches. The recruiters distributed leaﬂets about the movement’s goals, and encouraged participation over the objections of parents, principals, and other administrators. Students enthusiastically joined.
Thousands of them — some elementary-school-aged — skipped class on Thursday, May 2, and gathered at the 16th Street Baptist Church. After talking and mingling with classmates, the students listened to Bevel’s exhortations and instructions. A charismatic speaker, he urged the youngsters to take a stand for freedom.
Then, just after noon that day, at Bevel’s urging, throngs of students spilled out from the imposing red-brick church across from Kelly Ingram Park and into the street. With picket signs in hand, the students marched the eight blocks toward city hall and the business district, all the while singing freedom songs. The lyrics to “We Shall Overcome,” “Oh Freedom,” and other hymns tamped down their fear and inspired feelings of joy and calm, remembered Audrey Faye Hendricks, one of the participants — only nine years old at the time. “We shall overcome / We shall overcome / We shall overcome some day / Oh, deep in my heart / I do believe / We shall overcome some day,” they sang, arms locked together. When the students reached town, happy and excited, they approached select merchants and municipal buildings.
Before long the inevitable occurred: the children’s march encountered Connor, together with police oﬃcers and ﬁreﬁghters. Although ﬂustered by the presence of so many children Connor ordered his men to arrest and conﬁne the students. Oﬃcers carted dozens to squad cars. After the cars ﬁlled, Connor called for police wagons. Then he called for school buses to transport the children to jails as more arrived on the scene. Hundreds of children were arrested that day. While held, the youths endured questioning about the mass movement. After police took Hendricks to Juvenile Hall, ﬁve or six white men surrounded the third-grader and queried her about the mass meetings and, in particular, whether leaders had forced her and others to participate. Nervous and afraid that “they might kill” her, Hendricks revealed all that a nine-year-old could about the movement’s tactics. For seven long days, the little girl remained in jail, deprived of contact with her parents. The children slept on mattresses piled on the ﬂoor, and survived on peanut butter sandwiches and milk. Larry Russell, then 16, remembered that oﬃcers ﬁngerprinted him and treated all of the young people “like common criminals.”
News of the youths’ activism and their arrests garnered national attention and widespread condemnation. Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy called what became known as the Children’s Crusade “a dangerous business” that risked innocent life. But the federal government had “no authority,” he insisted, to intervene in the local battle. So despite the criticism, youth-led demonstrations continued in the coming days.
In the face of new protests, Connor escalated his response, ordering ﬁremen and police oﬃcers to violently suppress the demonstrations of children. Chaos ensued. As video cameras rolled and photographers snapped pictures, the Birmingham Fire Department pummeled children with high-pressure hoses as Connor yelled, “Let ’em have it.” Hit with the force of the water, children fell to the streets, some spinning under its power. Oﬃcers unleashed snarling dogs on the kids. Connor delighted in the fright caused by police dogs; he liked, he said, to see the “niggers run.” Policemen also attacked the children with clubs. These men brutalized scores of children at Connor’s command, some of whom lost ﬂesh as a result of the water pressure, while others sustained bites and gashes from the dog attacks. Many onlookers responded to this violence with more violence, pelting oﬃcers with bricks and rocks. Amid the bedlam, Connor ordered hundreds of arrests. Police cars, police wagons, and school buses again carted hundreds of children oﬀ to jails and juvenile detention facilities. When the pens at these facilities overﬂowed, Connor held the young activists at the local fairgrounds. The same scene played out again later that week.
Over the airwaves and on live television, in domestic and foreign newspapers, journalists disseminated the scenes and sounds of children as young as six mowed down, clubbed, and dragged oﬀ to jail. The images from Birmingham shocked the world. Photographs and video footage showed the depth to which human beings would sink to defend white supremacy. By focusing a harsh light on the severity of the problem of American racism, the Children’s Crusade marked a turning point in the civil rights movement.
The travails of the child activists did not end there. In a stunning act of retaliation, Birmingham’s school superintendent, Theo R. Wright, in a May 20 letter to principals, ordered the immediate expulsion or suspension of all students who had joined the Children’s Crusade. Three members of the board of education — each of whom had been appointed by Connor — endorsed the superintendent’s decision..
Wright’s order dispensed with the due process requirement found in the same policy he relied on to oust the students. In the case of the Children’s Crusade, Wright observed, the board members had made an exception to the rule that entitled students to hearings prior to suspension or expulsion because “there is not enough time remaining during the present school session to have trials of all of these students.” The school year was set to end on May 30, 1963, 10 days after the superintendent’s fateful letter. The students would not only be deprived of their due process rights: by making the suspensions and expulsions a part of their permanent academic records, the board of education ensured that the punishments would forever haunt them and imperil those who planned to graduate in the spring. Wright was making an example of the children.
The actions angered and frightened parents and students alike. Many students had joined the movement without the knowledge or approval of their parents. Uninvolved in the protests themselves, parents fretted. Many had warned against the participation of children in Project C, and now their fears had been realized. In a community with limited access to education and historically low high school graduation rates, many worried over what would become of their families’ livelihoods. King’s decision to involve the children drew intense criticism.
At this precarious moment, Motley — working once again with Greenberg and local counsel Orzell Billingsley Jr. and Arthur D. Shores — ﬁled a lawsuit in federal court arguing that the board’s action violated the rights of all 1,080 students who had been penalized. Motley contended that by suspending or expelling participants in the Children’s Crusade, the superintendent and board of education had made the legal process an instrument of racial discrimination. She requested the reinstatement of every student.
A lawsuit required plaintiﬀs, and Motley found brave representatives of the cause and the case in Rev. Calvin Woods Sr. and his daughter Linda. Woods was a singular man. Called to the ministry while in elementary school, steeped in social activism, and a strong believer in “speaking to social issues,” he was a Baptist minister and a Birmingham native. He had been beaten, arrested, convicted, and sentenced to six months in prison for protesting the desegregation of Birmingham’s buses in 1956, although his sentence was eventually overturned. He cofounded, with Shuttlesworth, the Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights, which was a cosponsor of Project C. Integrally involved in the campaign, Woods had also been beaten and arrested by the Birmingham police during the protests, and Ku Klux Klan members had spat in his face.
That Woods’s daughter joined the struggle for civil rights surprised no one. Hidden away in the back seat of the reverend’s Cadillac, Linda and her sister, both still in grade school, had traveled to protests with their father for years. Linda grew up watching her father’s brave exploits, and what she saw left an indelible impression on the young girl. The sight of whites “treating my dad so bad” when “all he was trying to do was to make things better for Blacks” “made” her “want to get involved.” Inspired by her father’s example, Linda seized the opportunity to do her part as a protester in the Children’s Crusade and after her arrest as plaintiﬀ for the trial.
The judge, Clarence W. Allgood — a native of Birmingham and one of several segregationists whom President Kennedy chose for lifetime appointments to the bench — was disinclined to side with the children. That was clear to Motley soon upon arriving in his courtroom at 11 o’clock in the morning. Allgood waited until late in the afternoon to deny Motley’s request for the injunction.
As Motley watched the time pass, she grew agitated. She had no illusion that the court would side with the plaintiﬀs and planned to appeal the judge’s adverse ruling. Time was of the essence if she was to appeal that same day and spare the parents and children another day of anxious uncertainty. When Allgood ﬁnally announced his decision, it was exactly what Motley had expected.
But Motley was one step ahead. She had been so certain of the ruling and so determined to immediately appeal the decision, that she had taken an extraordinary step: she had alerted Chief Judge Elbert Tuttle of the Fifth Circuit to expect to receive her legal papers challenging Allgood’s decision. Tuttle, who by now had witnessed Motley try numerous cases, agreed to hear the appeal later that same afternoon. Motley planned to depart Birmingham for Atlanta, the location of the federal courthouse, on the last ﬂight of the day in the afternoon. Allgood’s stalling made her afraid that she would be too late.
Shortly after 3:00 p.m., Motley rang Tuttle’s chambers to inform him that she would not be able to make it to Atlanta in time after all. “I’m afraid we won’t be able to get there today because the last plane has left.” But Tuttle’s next words surprised and delighted Motley. “No,” he said, “I checked the schedule, and there is one at 5 o’clock that will get you here by 6.” Tuttle promised Motley that he would hear her appeal at 7 p.m. The conversation — and the extraordinary deference the chief judge showed to Motley — illustrated the tremendous respect and goodwill the civil rights lawyer had earned. Motley arrived on time, and Tuttle vindicated the students — all 1,080 of them.
Just hours after Allgood’s ruling, Tuttle ordered the school superintendent to halt the suspensions and expulsions of the students involved in the Children’s Crusade. In comments from the bench, Tuttle chastised Allgood for ignoring clearly relevant U.S. Supreme Court precedent. In decisions issued earlier that same week, the justices had reversed the convictions of activists who had been arrested while staging sit-ins at segregated lunch counters. Given the high court’s decision, Tuttle — visibly angry and exasperated with the school board’s attorneys — said the students had been illegally arrested for doing nothing more than exercising their constitutional rights. Tuttle called it “shocking” that they had been thrown out of school, particularly at a time of national alarm about school dropouts. The New York Times called Tuttle’s decision a “sharp rebuke” of the Birmingham judge and, by extension, of the superintendent of schools.
Following Tuttle’s initial decision, a three-judge panel of the Fifth Circuit issued an opinion formally reversing Allgood’s decision. The court had sided with Motley. The Crusaders would not be punished for protesting Jim Crow and would return to school.
Copyright © 2022 by Tomiko Brown-Nagin. Published by arrangement with Pantheon Books, an imprint of The Knopf Doubleday Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC.