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Arts & Life

Civil Rights Radio Part 1-- "Well, the first thing I tell them was I went to jail..."

Birmingham News/Birmingham Bar Foundation

“For me, it was just a day of resolve and resolution, and I said ‘sign me up,” says James Stewart “Well, the first thing I tell them is that I went to jail, and they go ‘Oooh, Grandmama,” and I say well, let me explain…” recalled Eloise Gaffney. “It was just…you knew God was on your side,” says Washington Booker. “And we knew that it didn’t matter what we were facing. You knew if God was on your side, you’d overcome it.” Stewart, Gaffney, and Booker are all in their early sixties. They’re all from Birmingham. They’re all African American. And fifty years ago, they made national news. On May 2, 1963, they were among the teenagers who took part in what became known as the “children’s march.” It was a protest against segregation in Birmingham. If you ever saw the film footage of Negro protesters being me with fire hoses and police dogs, that’s it. Back then, these kids were just kids. Thousands of them were inspired by civil rights leaders like the Reverend Fred Shuttles worth, James Bevel, and of course Dr. Martin Luther King, Junior. But, there were other voices too. In 1963, songs by Curtis Mayfield and the Impressions were playing on local radio stations. Fats Domino and Little Willie Littlefield had hits as well. If kids in 1963 Birmingham wanted to hear this music, there was one place to go. “I was a broadcaster,” says Shelley Stewart. “And, my audience was what I would call…a vast audience of black and white people.” Shelley Stewart is also from Birmingham. His career as a radio disc jockey goes back to the late 1950’s and early 60’s. Even before the 1963 "children's march," Washington Booker remembered Shelley as “The Playboy.” Now, how it got that name, I do not know,” recalled Booker. “That is probably an interesting story, but I do not know. He’d call people up like ‘baby Jones in Ensley, you up? you up? You need to get up.’ And, a few minutes Mrs. Jones will call up and say ‘Shelley, what are you doing getting people up at 5 o’clock.’ ” “He did R and B,” says Eloise Gaffney. “But, he had…he had one saying that went ‘Timber! Let it fall!’ Something like that. And, I think that was…I know that was one of the signals.” The school students who took part in the children’s march talk about these signals a lot. “On the radio, Shelley made an announcement that we’re playing this song, and all of us knew that meant this was going to be a day of activity,” says James Stewart. “Even the kids who didn’t go to the meetings. We ran into them every day.” In 1963, segregation in Alabama had reached a tipping point.

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