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Civil Rights Radio--Part 4 "We didn't know the danger."

Birmingham News/Birmingham Bar Foundation

Jail was like hell. It was four days of really hell. James Stewart of Birmingham was just a teenager on April 2, 1963. He took part in the Children’s March, and he was one of the first to arrested and jailed… “We were put in a room that could hold fifty or sixty people comfortably. They put three hundred of us in that room. It was standing room only,” Stewart recalls. “It was a concrete floor, it was concrete walls, very small windows with the bars on them. It was very hot. And they just kept putting us in that room. We had to develop a system just to sleep. We would make space on the floor, and most of us would stand around the walls, or sit in the windows. And those who slept on the floor, slept on the concrete.” Washington Booker was in that cell too. “Going to jail didn’t slow anybody down, didn’t break anyone spirit,” Booker says. “Okay, we’re in jail, this is what we supposed to do…let’s all sing… ‘ain’t gonna let nobody turn me round, turn me round…’ And we sang. It was…it was…anything but punishment.” That was day one of the children’s march. On day two, more marches took place, more arrests were made. But when these students were put behind bars, Stewart and Booker noticed they were soaking wet. “I was out in the park when they released the fire hoses and the police dogs,” says Eloise Gaffney, who also took part in the “children’s march.” “I was walking along, at that time it was Fifth Avenue, and it was a whole row of businesses there, and they all had glass windows, and I mean the water was so forceful it knocked me into the windows. I mean they were in the park, and the water had come over a block. Some of us found fun in it. Some of us laid on the ground and let the water push us around the park. We made a fun thing out of it. I know one of the girls who had bite marks from the dogs, so that was really scary. But the fear didn’t come. Now, when I think about it…Lord. I think it had be Lord to keep us, because we didn’t realize the danger.” The nation soon responded, including U.S. President John F. Kennedy. “Today, as the result of responsible efforts on the part of both white and Negro leaders, over the last seventy two hours,” said Kennedy. “The business community in Birmingham has responded in a constructive and commendable fashion and pledged that substantial steps would begin to meet the justifiable needs of the Negro community. Negro leaders have announced suspension of their demonstration.” Washington Booker saw this response this way. “Having access to jobs where we spent our money was part of what we were asking for,” he says. “We had the right be salespeople where we spent our money. But, for us as kids, that was far off. But going to the Alabama Theatre did, sitting at that lunch counter did.” The very next year, Congress would pass the 1964 Civil Rights Act, which outlawed racial discrimination. Still, fifty years after the Children’s March, James Stewart is still dealing with the emotions. There are people who say get over it, just get over it,” he says. “When you see the size and the magnitude of what happened, it’s not easy to get over.” Washington Booker gets those questions too, from his grandchildren. “What they can’t really get their minds around is understand how we….how we took it,” he says. “Why didn’t we fight to the death and be done with it. Maybe that’s taking to an extreme, but that’s what they wonder.” That’s one reason these protesters are talking about it now, fifty years later. They want young people to know why they did it, and why facing the fire hoses, police dogs, and jail in 1963 was worth it.

Pat Duggins is news director for Alabama Public Radio.
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