Birmingham Students Reenact Historic March, 50 Years Later

In Birmingham, Ala., on Thursday, children took to downtown streets in a reenactment of historic events there 50 years ago. It's part of a series of events this year marking Birmingham's crucial role in the civil rights movement.

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MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

In Birmingham, Alabama, today, young people marched peacefully through downtown. It was a reenactment of not-so-peaceful civil rights marches 50 years ago, when a Children's Crusade drew brutal resistance from segregationists and changed the heart of the nation.

NPR's Debbie Elliott has this look back.

DEBBIE ELLIOTT, BYLINE: Today, Birmingham's students had permission to miss class for their historic march.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Wenonah, file behind the foot soldiers. Center Point High School, behind Wenonah. Back up this way.

ELLIOTT: The youth lined up in the street beside Kelly Ingram Park, where statues depict the police dogs and fire hoses that young marchers faced there 50 years ago.

The Children's Crusade was part of the Birmingham campaign, a calculated move by civil rights leaders to take their fight to a city so violently opposed to integration its nickname was Bombingham.

Here's the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. explaining the strategy.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED AUDIO)

MARTIN LUTHER KING JR.: And I have the feeling that if we can get a breakthrough in Birmingham and really break down the walls of segregation, it will demonstrate to the whole South - at least the hard-core South - that it can no longer resist.

ELLIOTT: But in Birmingham, the resistance was fierce, led by Police Commissioner Bull Connor, the hardest of hard-core segregationists.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED AUDIO)

BULL CONNOR: You can never whip these birds if you don't keep you and them separate. I found that out in Birmingham. You've got to keep the white and the black separate.

ELLIOTT: The student marches in the spring of 1963 were just the beginning of a violent year that would culminate in the Ku Klux Klan bombing of 16th Street Baptist Church, where four black girls were killed. The scenes from Birmingham galvanized the nation and prompted President Kennedy to begin work on the Civil Rights Act. Now, 50 years later, the city is commemorating its crucial role.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Can somebody say Fred Shuttlesworth?

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: Fred Shuttlesworth.

ELLIOTT: At this city hall ceremony earlier this year, foot soldiers of the Birmingham movement were honored with the inaugural Reverend Fred Shuttlesworth Flame Award named for the local preacher who convinced Martin Luther King to launch the Birmingham campaign.

Honoree Tom Ellison says he started marching when he was just 5 years old and hasn't stopped since. Ellison was a classmate of Addie Mae Collins, one of the girls killed in the church bombing. And his father was a local minister active in the movement. He says the city has come a long way.

TOM ELLISON: Just even being in city hall sometimes is a miracle to me because I lived downtown. I lived a block away from 16th Street Baptist Church, and we knew not to even come this way.

ELLIOTT: Ellison's experiences being jailed and beaten in the '60s led him to his career as a medical doctor because he says local doctors back then were afraid to come and treat injured marchers.

ELLISON: You weren't going to risk the rage of Bull Connor to come down and help.

(LAUGHTER)

ELLISON: So most often people just went home beaten and bruised and bleeding.

ELLIOTT: Leaders say this 50th anniversary year is a chance to acknowledge the culpability of the city's institutions that furthered segregation, for instance, the local newspaper.

BARNETT WRIGHT: The Birmingham News really did not do what it was supposed to do in 1963. The newspaper failed in its mission.

ELLIOTT: Barnett Wright is a reporter with the News today.

WRIGHT: Well, one example is on May 2nd when thousands of students left school to march. The Birmingham News did not put that story on the front page.

ELLIOTT: The top stories instead were about a pet snake and two people who scaled a mountain in Katmandu.

WRIGHT: So a story 8,200 miles away from the front doors of The Birmingham News was more important than a life-changing event.

ELLIOTT: Wright has compiled a book called "1963: How the Birmingham Civil Rights Movement Changed America and the World."

Today, hundreds of students stretched for two blocks to reenact the city's watershed events. Woodlawn High School student Reagan Harris was among the marchers.

REAGAN HARRIS: I'm very blessed to be here today to do this because back then we couldn't even cross the street with each other. But now, everyone is holding hands and rejoicing together. So I think it's a big responsibility to come out here and do this today.

ELLIOTT: The march was upbeat, more like a parade as a college marching band led the procession. A far cry from the billy clubs, police dogs and fire hoses 50 years ago.

Debbie Elliott, NPR News.

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