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"Jail was like hell..." An APR 40th anniversary encore presentation

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Alabama Public Radio is celebrating its 40th anniversary this year. The news team has generated a lot of stories in all that time. And we’ll be spending the year listening back to the best of the best of these features. That’s includes work by our student interns from the University of Alabama. Today’s story is from 2013. APR news director Pat Duggins produced this feature for the 50th anniversary of what became known as the “children’s march.” Young African American civil rights protesters in Birmingham were set upon with fire hoses and police dogs. APR interviewed James Stewart, Eloise Gaffney, and Washington Booker. All three took part in the march as teenagers back in 1963. Here’s that encore airing from the APR archives.

“Jail was like hell. It was four days of really hell,” said James Stewart.

APR interviewed him as well as his follow “children’s march” protesters from 1963—Eloise Gaffney and Washington Booker. All three were among the demonstrators for civil rights in Birmingham who were met with firehoses and police dogs. The incident is etched in history, and helped lead to the signing of the 1964 Civil Rights Act.

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“We were put in a room that could hold 50 or 60 people comfortably,” Stewart said. “They put 300 of us in that room. It was standing room only. 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 said. “OK, 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,” Eloise Gaffney said. “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.”

“My father, who was a physician in Birmingham was at a medical meeting, and his brother was a physician as well and they were at a medical meeting. And they saw the news,” Stewart said. “And it said dogs were released on school children in Birmingham and the demonstrations. So the doctors were all around the television, and my uncle said to my father, ‘Isn’t that James, you know in the demonstration?' Because the showed the first day and then some of the second day of the demonstration. 'Isn’t that James right there?' And my father said, 'You know, it is.' And, he got on the phone and called my mother, and she answered the phone and she said, 'Yes, I see him, I see him.' And they started planning how to get me out of jail. They knew that if something was going on, I’d be in the thick of it.”

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“Today, as the result of responsible efforts on the part of both white and Negro leaders, over the last seventy two hours,” said President John F. Kennedy of the unrest in Birmingham that had been broadcast to black and white television sets nationwide. “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."

“Having access to jobs where we spent our money was part of everything we were asking for. 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,” Booker said.

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“We can hope that tensions will ease,” Kennedy said. “And that this case history, which has so far only narrowly avoided violence and fatalities, will remind every State, and citizen and every community, how urgent it is that all bars to equal opportunity and treatment be removed as promptly as possible.”

The next year, Congress passed the Civil Rights Act. Change was coming, but some of it would take time. The same year the Civil Rights Act was signed, Alabama Governor George Wallace ran for President of the United States. Among his campaign stops was Gary, Indiana.

“I say to you again, as I said to you Congressman before the platform committee,” Wallace told a campaign crowd, “I know you Congressman and your county and district, and I’ve said that if I’m ever run out of Alabama, I’m coming to Lake County, Indiana."

Wallace would later renounce his support for segregation, and even apologize for it. But, 50 years later, James Stewart is still dealing with it.

“There are people who say get over it, just get over it. When you see the size and the magnitude of what happened, it’s not easy to get over,” Stewart said.

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. 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, you know” Booker said.

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Eloise Gaffney is concerned that young people today won’t know why the children’s march took place unless someone tells them. She trying to use a tradition that goes back even before 1963. The Reverend Fred Shuttlesworth came up with the idea when civil rights meetings became more and more frequent.

It started out on Monday nights, but the more intense the movement got they met every night.

"Well, like a church you need a choir, you need singing," Shuttlesworth said.

At the age of 13, Eloise Gaffney became the youngest member of the Christian Unity Choir. They sang at the meetings and at the marches.

"We were singing songs, but it wasn’t an organized effort. So that’s when the Alabama Christian Unity Choir was organized,” Gaffney said.

And 50 years later, they’re still at it. Gaffney is now the director and the group is known as the Carlton Reese Memorial Unity Choir as its founder. The group includes protesters from the 1963 children’s march. Gaffney says between songs they talk about why they did it.

“Okay, how did we get from there to here? Now, you realize that a person that has the ability no matter of the color of their skin, they should be able to perform that job,” Gaffney said.

Today’s concert is at the Birmingham Public Library. Most of the audience is made up of adults, but not all of them.

“It really means a lot to me, and it touches me that they’d make that kind of sacrifice just for me and others,” said 11-year-old Meleko. His grandmother brought him. “They didn’t risk their lives and spend their lives just for me to take life for granted. So, I think I should as much out of life and learn as much as I can.”

That story came from the Alabama Public Radio archives as APR celebrates 40 years on the air. The feature from APR news director Pat Duggins won an international Gabriel award for best documentary. The program was also recognized with a Silver Radio award from the New York Festivals International Radio competition. We’ll be diving into the APR archives as we celebrate forty years on the air here in Alabama.

Pat Duggins is news director for Alabama Public Radio.
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