The Children’s Crusade march in Birmingham, Ala. offered the world a firsthand look at the extreme bigotry and violent resistance the Civil Rights Movement faced. On May 2, 1963 a peaceful protest escalated into a brutal show of force from racists determined to snatch equal rights from the hands of young Black people.
In 1963, Rev. James Bevel crafted the idea of a citywide protest led by Birmingham school students against segregated classrooms. Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., disagreed at first. He thought using minors put them in too much danger.
But Bevel was able to get the idea off the ground. The march began with thousands of students walking out of class and organizing in groups at the Sixth Street Baptist Church in downtown Birmingham. Birmingham police headed the group off and began arresting students, despite their lack of aggression.
The next day, more students gathered, which prompted Birmingham’s police chief Bull Connor to order attack dogs, riot police, and the city’s fire department, which turned its powerful hoses at full blast on the students.
Connor, well known for his use of violence towards Black protesters, was vilified in the national and international press for ordering the attack. Between May 2 and May 5, the skirmishes continued, although King encouraged parents of the jailed and battered students to continue their resistance.
Malcolm X, then the leader of the Nation of Islam, was publicly critical of King and Bevel using children in their cause. The campaign was ended on May 10 after the Justice Department helped broker an agreement between the SCLC and local officials to end segregation in downtown stores and release the jailed students.
Shortly after, the city’s Board of Education said all students that were part of the Crusade would be suspended or expelled. The SCLC and NAACP fought the board’s decision with an appeals court eventually overturning the local federal court’s ruling. The Children’s Crusade was largely seen as a victory, and King used it as a pivotal point in the civil rights struggle.
Graphic photos of Connor’s violent tactics helped to bring light to the racial discrimination Blacks in the South dealt with daily. The Crusade also galvanized civil rights leaders to organize the historic 1963 March On Washington and it impacted the eventual signing of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.