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1A Remaking America: The Birmingham movement, 60 years later (Rebroadcast)

Young protestors during the Birmingham Campaign in Birmingham, Alabama, May 1963. The movement, which called for the integration of African Americans, was organized by Martin Luther King Jr. and Fred Shuttlesworth amongst others. (Photo by Frank Rockstroh/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)
Young protestors during the Birmingham Campaign in Birmingham, Alabama, May 1963. The movement, which called for the integration of African Americans, was organized by Martin Luther King Jr. and Fred Shuttlesworth amongst others. (Photo by Frank Rockstroh/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)

On May 2, 1963,  hundreds of school-age kids in Birmingham, Alabama, woke up with a plan. 

Through coded messages broadcast by local radio DJs, they were given the signal to leave the classroom and meet at the park for a peaceful protest against segregation in the city. 

“My mother said, ‘I’m sending you to school, don’t get in any trouble’,” said Janice Kelsey, who was a 16-year-old high school student in Birmingham at the time.  “I was going to school. I just wasn’t going to stay.” 

Jeff Drew also participated in the Children’s March. His parents were involved in the Birmingham movement for civil rights and hosted Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in their home.

“You cannot imagine the joy of being on one of those buses on your way to jail,” said Drew. “We were nearly dying to participate.” 

Janice Kelsey and Jeff Drew joined us at the Carver Theater in Birmingham last month for a community conversation on the fight for civil rights then and now.Their actions as students in the spring of 1963 brought national attention—and a new momentum—to the civil rights movement, support for which had been waning as more adults were jailed and reluctant to be arrested.

Civil rights leaders, including James Bevel, recruited young people to participate in a peaceful demonstration on May 2, 1963 in what became known as the Children’s Crusade. Hundreds of kids were arrested by police for parading without a permit. Images of police dogs and firehoses being used on students in the city highlighted the injustices in Birmingham and prompted President John F. Kennedy to express support for federal civil rights legislation. 

On our trip to Birmingham, we also spoke to the next generation of activists. Ashley M. Jones is a Birmingham native and the Poet Laureate of Alabama. At 32 years old, Jones is the state’s youngest-ever poet laureate and the first person of color to hold the position. Birmingham Mayor Randall Woodfin also joined us to talk about how the city’s past informs his role today. 

This conversation was recorded in April as part of ourRemaking America collaboration with six public radio stations around the country, including WBHM. Remaking America is funded in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

Copyright 2023 WAMU 88.5

Anna Casey
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