60 Years Ago Today: Police Attack Children’s Crusade with Dogs & Water Cannons in Birmingham, Alabama
Written by GRB on 02/05/2023
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.
AMY GOODMAN: We turn now to look back at an historic protest in Birmingham, Alabama, 60 years ago today. Beginning May 2nd, 1963, thousands of children began a week-long series of protests against segregation in Birmingham. The campaign came known as the Children’s Crusade. When the children took to the streets, the local head of the police, Bull Connor, used high-pressure fire hoses and dogs to attack the children, many of whom were arrested. Images of the police violence was broadcast around the world. One photograph captured the moment when a white police officer allowed a large German shepherd dog to attack a young Black boy. The Children’s Crusade began at the 16th Street Baptist Church. Four months after the protests began, the Ku Klux Klan bombed the church, killing four little girls — Addie Mae Collins, Carole Robertson, Cynthia Wesley and Denise McNair.
In a moment, we’ll be joined by two guests to talk about the Children’s Crusade in Birmingham, but first let’s turn to the scholar and activist Angela Davis, who grew up in Birmingham. This is Angela speaking in 2013.
ANGELA DAVIS: And how many of us remember that it was young children — 11, 12, 13, 14 years old, some as young as 9 or 10 — who faced police dogs and faced high-power water hoses and went to jail for our sake? And so, there is deep symbolism in the fact that these four young girls’ lives were consumed by that bombing. It was children who were urging us to imagine a future that would be a future of equality and justice.
AMY GOODMAN: That was Angela Davis in 2013.
We’re joined now by two guests. Paul Kix, writer and author of the new book, You Have to Be Prepared to Die Before You Can Begin to Live: Ten Weeks in Birmingham That Changed America, he’s joining us from his home in Connecticut. And in Birmingham, longtime civil rights activist Janice Kelsey is with us. She joined the Children’s Crusade as a 16-year-old in 1963. She wrote about her experience in her own book, I Woke Up with My Mind on Freedom.
We welcome you both to Democracy Now! Janice Kelsey, let’s begin with you. It was 60 years ago today. I’m sure for you it doesn’t seem that long ago. Talk about what happened.
JANICE KELSEY: I remember, 60 years ago today, I woke up with my mind on freedom. I had attended student nonviolent workshops, and I was prepared, because I finally understood that it was more than just segregation, it was inequality. And Reverend James Bevel empowered us as youth to do something about it. And I was willing to do that.
AMY GOODMAN: And talk about what you did. Talk about what it meant to take to the streets, and the police violence in response.
JANICE KELSEY: Well, in the preparation sessions that were held at 16th Street Baptist Church, we had seen film of demonstrations in other places, so I saw people being hit, being called names and being mistreated for demonstrating. We were told that if you participate, some of this may happen to you, but this is a nonviolent movement, and you cannot respond, except to pray or sing a freedom song. So I went into it knowing that there may be some level of danger, but I was so incensed at having been mistreated all these years, until I was willing to sacrifice whatever was necessary to take steps to change the environment.
AMY GOODMAN: Just over four months later, the beginning of that Children’s Crusade, the 16th Street Baptist Church, was bombed. Four little girls, four young people, young women, were killed. One of them was Cynthia Wesley. You share the last name of Cynthia Wesley, Janice — Cynthia. Explain what happened.
JANICE KELSEY: Well, on that Sunday morning, I was at the church where I attended. And we had a speaker up. Our pastor interrupted the speaker and announced that 16th Street Baptist Church had been bombed and that there were some casualties. And that meant someone died. He said a prayer, and he dismissed church. Well, when we got home, people were calling our home. I have a large family. There were nine siblings. And my mom would not allow anyone else to answer the phone. And I kept on hearing her say, “No, not our family.”
Finally, when the news came on, the national news, they identified the casualties. Cynthia Wesley was one. I met Cynthia in elementary school when she was adopted by Claude and Gertrude Wesley, who were educators and friends of our family but not related. I was invited to come to their home for lawn parties. We went on field trips together. And Cynthia had just come to my high school. She was a ninth grader. I was an 11th grader. And I had not known anyone in my age group to die, let alone to be killed at church. I was devastated to hear Cynthia had died.
But there was a connection with the other girls, as well. Carole Robertson’s father, Alvin Robertson, was my band teacher in elementary school. And his wife taught at the same school where my sister taught, and they were friends. Denise McNair was 11, and her father, Chris McNair, was our milkman. He used to deliver milk and juice to the home. Addie Collins, I did not know her family, but she had a sister in the same class with one of my brothers.
And I was just devastated, because I thought people were proud of the courage that we had displayed in the spring of the year. I didn’t know it made someone so angry that they would react in such a violent way.
AMY GOODMAN: So, let’s bring Paul Kix into this conversation, who has just published the book today, You Have to Be Prepared to Die Before You Can Begin to Live: Ten Weeks in Birmingham That Changed America. Paul, if you can talk about why you wrote this book? Talk about your interracial family, George Floyd, and how that connects to what began 60 years ago today.
PAUL KIX: I’ll take the last part first. I mean, there was — from emancipation in 1863 to 1963, there were no — there was no equality, no sense of anything. That spring changed everything. And to have somebody like Janice — to be able to share this segment with someone like Janice is just — it gives me goosebumps, because just behind me you see my twin boys. I married my wife Sonya in a Jim Crow state of Texas. We live today on a shaded street where nobody harasses us for who we are. That’s because of what Janice just talked about. It’s the ability to not only, you know, put your life on the line in the moment, but to think about the lives ahead, the people in the future that might benefit from your actions in Birmingham.
So, my wife Sonya grew up in inner-city Houston, one neighborhood away from where George Floyd grew up. She had — her cousins went to the same high school, Yates High, as George. Sonya was the same age as George when George was murdered, 46.
And so, that’s a long way to say that we did not shield our kids from that sort of coverage. It was the first time they had ever seen something like that happen, where an innocent Black man was killed by police officers. And our twin boys, who are, again, behind me there in that photo, they were then 9. They had a lot of questions about what that meant for America. There was a — 2020, the latter half of 2020, was an incredibly difficult time. The boys would often run from the room in tears because of what they saw of George Floyd, because of what they saw — Jacob Blake was somebody else who was shot, by Kenosha, Wisconsin, cops. You know, one of my twin boys ran from the room, saying, “Why do they keep trying to kill us?” It was a hard time, 2020.
And I settled on a book project that very quickly became a family project, which was a way to try to inspire our three kids about how they might have courage in their own lives. And that extends back to what I see as the most pivotal period in the whole of the 20th century, and that is the spring of 1963 in Birmingham, Alabama, and in particular what happened on May 2nd and on May 3rd and on May 4th — excuse me — D-Day, Double D-Day, and through that weekend — the Children’s Crusade.
AMY GOODMAN: Let me turn to Vincent Harding for a moment. In 2008, I interviewed Vincent Harding, the pioneering historian, theologian and civil rights activist. In 1963, Martin Luther King invited him to come to Birmingham, Alabama, to help with the campaign.
VINCENT HARDING: King came especially to our attention there in Birmingham because there was a whole development in which many of the protesters were young people, and in some cases children, who came to play a crucial role in leading the struggle against segregation, partly because many of the adults were afraid to, couldn’t afford to, were worried about what would happen to them and their livelihoods if they did it. And the children took the role. They were arrested, after the dogs and the fire hoses. They were put in jail. They were not able, after a while — SCLC wasn’t able to get all of the bond money that was needed to get everyone out. And King, I remember very much, one Friday afternoon, in his motel room, simply said, “I don’t know what I can do to get the money to get these folks out, young and old, but I do know that what I can do is to go in there with them.” And so, he then led a march that was against the law at the time, and he was arrested and put into jail. It was in that context that he took the opportunity to work on that now-famous “Letter from Birmingham Jail.”
AMY GOODMAN: That was the late Vincent Harding in 2008, the great historian, scholar and pastor. He helped write King’s famous antiwar speech, “Beyond Vietnam: A Time to Break the Silence.” Well, this is Dr. Martin Luther King reading part of his “Letter from the Birmingham Jail,” from the documentary King: A Filmed Record.
REV. MARTIN LUTHER KING JR.: You deplore the demonstrations taking place in Birmingham. But your statement, I am sorry to say, fails to express a similar concern for the conditions that brought about the demonstrations. … Birmingham is probably the most thoroughly segregated city in the United States. Its ugly record of brutality is widely known. … There have been more unsolved bombings of Negro homes and churches in Birmingham than in any other city in the nation. These are the hard, brutal facts of the case. …
You may well ask: “Why direct action? Why sit ins, marches and so forth? Isn’t negotiation a better path?” … Nonviolent direct action seeks to create such a crisis and foster such a tension that a community which has constantly refused to negotiate is forced to confront the issue. …
You speak of our activity in Birmingham as extreme. … Was not Jesus an extremist for love: “Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you.” … Will we be extremists for the preservation of injustice or for the extension of justice? …
I have no despair about the future. I have no fear about the outcome of our struggle in Birmingham, even if our motives are at present misunderstood. We will reach the goal of freedom in Birmingham and all over the nation, because the goal of America is freedom. … We will win our freedom because the sacred heritage of our nation and the eternal will of the Almighty God are embodied in our echoing demands.
AMY GOODMAN: From the documentary King: A Filmed Record, Dr. Martin Luther King reading his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” which he had written just weeks before the Children’s Crusade. Paul Kix, you talked about D-Day and Double D-Day, the horrific picture that begins your book, this famous image from — it was May 3rd, 1963, of the 14-year-old African American boy, this German shepherd biting his stomach. And he is — he has such poise. He doesn’t seem to be responding, but with dignity. Talk about D-Day and Double D-Day.
PAUL KIX: It altered everything. Janice was saying just a moment ago about Reverend James Bevel. To go into D-Day and Double D-Day was effectively because there was no other choice. Birmingham adults were not going to protest. They would very likely lose their jobs. That’s what James Bevel realized. So, what the children did, we’ve seen those images. We’ve seen people like Janice being attacked with fire hoses. But I just want to frame for the audience what that actually meant.
Those fire hoses were mounted on metal tripods that, frankly, looked like it was meant for artillery. It could knock mortar loose from brick. It could strip bark from a tree at a distance of more than a hundred feet. A lot of times kids were hit at less than 50 feet. Some of the raw footage from that day shows — from Double D-Day shows just horrific, horrific violence, kids’ clothes just basically disintegrating on them as the water hits them, kids backflipped in the air as the water hits their face or chest, kids writhing in pain as the Birmingham Fire Department and Birmingham Police Department keep the water hose right on them, at a distance of, again, 15 feet. Sometimes there was a girl — I will never forget this. There was a girl in Birmingham who was slid down the street by the power of the fire hose as she is just writhing in pain and screaming in terror, 50 feet, 60 feet, 70 feet. The camera crews just watched her pass. Then there were the German shepherds, like Walter Gadsden, the boy you referenced a moment ago.
The violence was so grotesque that there were literally war photographers who had been there, who had seen battle in World War II, and they said this was as bad as anything they had ever seen. There was a New York Times reporter by the name of R. W. Apple, who would later be famed, and he said he had never, across all of his years, in all of numerous war zones, he had never seen anything like the images out of Double D-Day, May 3rd, 1963. He had never seen that level of violence anywhere else in his life.
AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to go to break.
PAUL KIX: And so, that is what happened on that day. The courage that those kids showed that day, the faith that they showed, that these images would actually alter America, again, it led me to write this book, because I believe so fiercely that those 10 weeks, that week in particular, the week that we’re in right now, altered America forever, and for the better.
AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking to Paul Kix, author of You Have to Be Prepared to Die Before You Can Begin to Live: Ten Weeks in Birmingham That Changed America, and Janice Kelsey, longtime civil rights activist. She was 16 when she participated in the Children’s Crusade. We’re going to break, then coming back to talk more about this pivotal moment in history. Stay with us.
AMY GOODMAN: “Alabama” by John Coltrane, recorded in 1963 after the September bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church that killed four little girls. This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman.
In 2013, I interviewed Sarah Collins Rudolph, who survived the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, September 15, 1963. She was 12 years old, hit with shards of glass, lost an eye, was hospitalized for months. Her older sister, Addie Mae Collins, who was 14, died in the blast. Sarah Collins Rudolph described what happened.
SARAH COLLINS RUDOLPH: Yes. I was in the ladies’ lounge when the bomb went off. You know, I remember Cynthia, Denise and Carole walking inside the lounge area and went in where the stalls was. So when they came out, Denise passed by Addie and asked my sister to tie the sash on her dress. And I was across from them at the sink. And when Denise asked her to tie the sash, and I was looking at her when she began to tie it, and then all of a sudden, boom! I never did see her finish it, finish tying it. So, all I could do was say, call out, “Jesus!” because I didn’t know what that loud sound was. And then I called my sister, “Addie! Addie! Addie!” And she didn’t answer me. So, I thought that they had — the girls had ran on the other side of the church where the Sunday school area was.
But all of a sudden I heard a voice outside saying, “Somebody bombed the 16th Street church!” And it was so clear to me, as though that this person was right there, but they was outside where the crater was, a bomb in the church — where it bombed the hole there. And all the debris came rushing in, and I was hit in my face with glass and also in my — both eyes. Well, when the man came in — his name’s Samuel Rutledge — he came in and picked me up and carried me out of the crater, and the ambulance was out there waiting. And they rushed me to Hillman Hospital, which they changed the name. It’s now UAB Hospital. …
So they rushed me on up to the operating room, and they operated on both of my eyes and took the glass from out of my face. And I had glass in my chest and stomach. So they operated on me. And when I went back to the room — and I stayed there in the hospital for about two-and-a-half months. But at that time, when they took the bandages off my eyes, the doctor asked me what do I see out of my right eye. I told him I couldn’t see anything out of my right eye. And when he took it off my left eye, all I could see was just a little light.
AMY GOODMAN: And, of course, you lost your sister, as well, Addie Mae Collins, your older sister. You were 12. She was 14. Did you feel you could not find a safe place? I mean, after all, you were bombed in a church, the place you went for sanctuary.
SARAH COLLINS RUDOLPH: Yes, you would think that going to church is really a safe place, but it wasn’t. You know, somebody that would put a bomb in a church and kill four innocent girls, you know, that’s just the work of the devil, because that shouldn’t never have happened. These girls was young, and we was waiting that day for a youth service. But by the bomb going off, we didn’t get a chance to attend youth service.
AMY GOODMAN: That graphic description of the bombing that happened four months — a little more than four months after the Children’s Crusade. We are continuing with Janice Kelsey, whose name was similar to Cynthia Wesley, one of the four girls who was killed, and so people called in condolences to Janice’s family, thinking maybe it was her. But she was active in the Children’s Crusade at the age of 16 in Birmingham, Alabama. And we’re joined by Paul Kix, author of You Have to Be Prepared to Die, that chronicles this pivotal moment in U.S. history. Janice Kelsey, after the protests — and you were arrested in this period 60 years ago?
JANICE KELSEY: Sixty years ago today, I was arrested for parading without a permit.
AMY GOODMAN: Did you ever get slammed by those water hoses, or were you arrested before?
JANICE KELSEY: I was arrested before the water hoses and the dogs.
AMY GOODMAN: To show, I think, how powerful your protest was, maybe if you could talk about those who criticized King and the other leaders, saying, “You shouldn’t put children on the frontline”? I think that was Malcolm X who said, “Real men don’t put their children on the firing line.” Robert Kennedy also criticized this strategy. Your response to them?
JANICE KELSEY: Well, we didn’t have any other choice. If our parents had protested, they could have lost their jobs. They would have gone to jail. There was no one to take care of us. But as Bevel pointed out to us, we really didn’t have anything to lose. We were getting a second-class education. We had all kinds of inequities put on us. And if we wanted that to change, we were going to be the change agents. We didn’t have anything to lose.
AMY GOODMAN: Paul Kix, if you could talk about a secret meeting that was held that included James Bevel and Dr. King, and then the unbelievable fundraiser that was held in Harry Belafonte’s apartment — who we just lost at the age of 96 — and what that meant for this movement?
PAUL KIX: So, in January of 1963, the SCLC had a secret meeting in Dorchester, Georgia. And they didn’t even invite all of the executive directors. Martin Luther King Jr. didn’t even invite his own father to this meeting, because they wanted to discuss what they called the most dangerous idea in the civil rights movement, and that was: Should we go to Birmingham?
And it was a huge risk, because the SCLC was broke. The SCLC had been criticized for years for ineffective leadership. The SCLC, just one year prior, had staged a massive and absolutely abysmal failure of a campaign in Albany, Georgia. The SCLC was sneered at by other civil rights groups at the same time, by the same token that they were sneered at by the press, be it Northern press or Southern press. And so, this campaign, they decided, we are — in that secret meeting in Dorchester, they thought, “Well, we are either going to break segregation in Birmingham, or we are going to be broken by it.” There was a real concern that the SCLC would die as a result of this. And in fact, there was a real concern that a lot of SCL members would actually die in Birmingham just for taking part. King even delivered mock eulogies in Birming — excuse me, in Dorchester, in preparation for what they thought Birmingham would be like.
And then, to — you asked, the other half of this is Harry Belafonte, and he played —
AMY GOODMAN: And so, that was Bevel, Shuttlesworth, King and Abernathy who had this secret meeting.
PAUL KIX: There were some — the accounts vary as to how many there were. It is somewhere between 11 and 15 people. There were a few other people there, as well. But, yes, there was a core group of people there. It was Fred Shuttlesworth. Wyatt Walker was there. James Bevel was there. King was there. Those are the four people that ended up being the four protagonists in my book.
And then, a secondary character, and hugely influential throughout the entire campaign, was Harry Belafonte. And if we flash forward a copy of months — this secret meeting happens in January of 1963. In late March of 1963, just days before Project Confrontation, as it was known, the Birmingham campaign — that was a secret name for it, Project Confrontation. Just days before that campaign launched, there was the just as large gamble as to how exactly they were going to try to finance it. And so they go to Harry Belafonte’s apartment in New York. And while they are there, Fred Shuttlesworth, who was kind of a regionally known civil rights activist — Janice would know who he was — but he was a Birmingham pastor who was absolutely fearless. And he wowed the donors there that night, with just basically stories of his courage and bravery and faith. And at the end of his speech, he said, “You have to be prepared to die before you can begin to live.” And that was the line that just amazed the donors. And that night in Belafonte’s apartment, they raised $475,000 for the Birmingham campaign, which is akin, I think, today — I don’t have the calculator in front of me, but something like $4 million in modern currency. And it was the largest-ever — it was the largest-ever fundraiser in the SCLC’s history, and that was the money that they used, orchestrated almost entirely by Harry Belafonte, to then go into Birmingham.
AMY GOODMAN: Finally, Janice Kelsey, we just have a minute, but I wanted to end with your voice. Sixty years ago today, you were arrested in the Children’s Crusade. Your thoughts at this moment and message about what’s happening today?
JANICE KELSEY: It’s very discouraging and frightening to see leaders in legislatures and governors who are trying to push back on the gains that were made due to the tremendous sacrifices that were made by young people 60 years ago, not just people like me who went to jail, but people like the four girls who were killed at church, and the four young men who were killed in the communities that same Sunday. A lot of blood sacrifice went forth in order for us to gain the measures that were gained. And it is frightening to see the big push by people in leadership positions to return to the way we were. And I’m hoping and praying that our young people will step up again and say, “No, we are not going back.”
AMY GOODMAN: Janice Kelsey —
JANICE KELSEY: That’s what those two legislators did.
AMY GOODMAN: Thank you so much for being with us, longtime civil rights activist in Birmingham, Alabama. And Paul Kix, You Have to Be Prepared to Die, his new book. Thank you.