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Civil rights activist, who took in the Birmingham "children's march," dies

Birmingham News/Birmingham Bar Foundation

Birmingham area disc jockey Shelley the Playboy may have signaled the start of the children’s march in 1963, but he didn’t organize it. The credit goes to a lieutenant of Dr. Martin Luther King, the reverend James Bevel. One of the teenagers he inspired was James Stewart…

“He wore one of the blue jeans suits, and had badges from everybody, and pins all over, and he was baldheaded and wore this skull cap,” Stewart remembered, “And he’s the one who was the kids’ ‘pied piper,’ he talked to us about getting involved. And we reached a point where we said ‘we need to do something to change this.’”

And that’s where Birmingham area disc jockey Shelley “the playboy” Stewart comes in. James Bevel also wanted to use local radio stations to get the word out on protest day. He talked to Shelley as well as another local disc jockey named Paul White. His radio audience knew him as “Tall Paul.” Shelley says on May 2, 1963, he and “Tall Paul” announced the start of the children’s march. But, they did it in a roundabout way. They used codes.

“They had to use to get codes to get into the community. If we made an announcement ‘I want everyone to go to the park,” you don’t do that,” says Shelley. “You had to remember there were mothers and fathers who were afraid and they’d lock the door, and the teachers and principals would lock the doors. You just went around that. As they said in the old days, ‘there’s more than way to skin a cat.’ ‘Shake, Rattle, and Roll’…that’s an old tune by an artist named Joe Turner. And, we said when we played ‘Shake, Rattle, and Roll’ that’s the signal. Time to go out. So, it’s ‘Shake, Rattle, and Roll.’And, when those kids heard that, they told the teachers ‘we’re gone!’ And, the teachers tried to stop them, they were jumping out of windows at Parker High. So, that is really happened, and it escalated. Bull Connor was very upset, the local police didn’t know what to do.”

And, I mean…it was…unbelievable,” recalled Eloise Gaffney, one of the teenaged protesters. “Everybody started storming out of the school. Some got out of windows. I remember Mr. Winston stood at the door, he was the teacher everybody was afraid of, and he held his hand up and said ‘stop!’ And the kids just trampled over him, and he went back like this with his hand still in the air. They just trampled over him. So, all just marched from Parker to 16th street. Carver in north Birmingham is farther than that. But, they all marched to 16th street. That’s what they did.”

“So, we were jammed into the paddy wagons,” said James Stewart, who marched in 1963 with Gaffney. “People were running over from the park, and they had seen what was going on, and there were news people, so it was a little chaotic in the streets. And they brought out the police and arrested us. And, it was a pretty terrifying experience.”

Gaffney and Stewart were both joined during the “children’s march” by Washington Booker. “And I felt the emotions, and the crowds that lined the streets, and then when the marchers were signing and the people were singing,” says Booker. “It just went whoosh! And you felt like you were a part of it. And I had already made up my mind, I was going to jail.” “Jail was like hell,” recalled James Stewart. “It was four days of really hell.” Part four of Civil Rights Radio airs Friday on APR.

Pat Duggins is news director for Alabama Public Radio.
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