| May 2, 2003
Birmingham Recalls a Time When Children Led the Fight
By DAVID M. HALBFINGER
IRMINGHAM, Ala., May 1 Across 40 years in time, some memories do not fade.
Cardell Gay, now 56, can still feel the wallop of the water as Bull Connor, the feared public safety commissioner who embodied segregation in Birmingham, had city firemen aim their hoses at him.
Gwendolyn Sanders Gamble, 55, can still hear the police attack dogs snarling, the preaching that drew her out of school, and the praying and singing that carried her into the street day after day.
Sandra Berry Pratt, 52, can still see her mother in a bright yellow dress, yellow pumps, and yellow handbag, jumping for joy as Ms. Pratt, then 12, was carted off to jail by the police five minutes into a protest outside a department store.
Some 2,000 people are expected to commemorate this weekend the epochal battle they fought in the civil rights movement, when children as young as 6 years old marched, picketed, jammed the jails and juvenile halls, shut the city's shopping district down, and at last broke the back of segregation in Birmingham, the most segregated city in the nation.
The surviving leaders of those 1963 protests will be here, including the Rev. Fred L. Shuttlesworth, now of Cincinnati, then a Birmingham firebrand who brought Martin Luther King Jr. to town and prodded him into a no-holds-barred campaign of civil disobedience; and the Rev. James Bevel, who played Pied Piper to the city's black schoolchildren.
But if the hotels are not exactly filling up, the reason is that many of those countless youngsters, the self-described foot soldiers of the battle of Birmingham, the ones who did not become famous in their own right, have never left.
The four-day program, which began tonight, serves up history with heaping portions of practical advice like seminars on sickle-cell anemia and child-rearing.
The point of it all, though, is to remember and to inspire, at a time when the causes worth fighting for do not seem nearly so basic and vital as they once did.
"We need reviving," said the Rev. Calvin Woods, who was arrested, beaten by police officers, and spat in the face by Ku Klux Klan members, all in the spring of 1963. "We've lost somewhat of the true spirit of the movement."
That the civil rights movement sent children to tear down Fortress Segregation, as Birmingham was called, was shocking not only to its opponents, but even to some of its leaders.
At one meeting in late April 1963, Dr. King was unable to cajole more than 20 adults to volunteer. But Dr. King was having no truck with the idea of children going to jail, according to Diane McWhorter's Pulitzer Prize-winning history of the civil rights battle in Birmingham, "Carry Me Home" (Simon & Schuster, 2001).
He repeatedly urged the young people to sit down. In the end, though, Ms. McWhorter wrote, King deferred to Mr. Shuttlesworth, who was practical: "We got to use what we got."
For the children of the protests, now grown up, looking back remains a source of tremendous pride. But it is a burden, too. As middle-aged parents and grandparents, some frown at sons and daughters who do not understand or appreciate enough the sacrifices and victories of so long ago. Yet they try not to let this make them become overbearing to their offspring.
Quietly, uneasily, they straddle two worlds: the harsh, cruel one they fought to shatter and the deceptively comfortable one in which they have raised their families.
At 16, Cardell Gay had watched his father get involved in the movement, helping to guard Mr. Shuttlesworth's home at night. Then he began attending the Monday night meetings himself. When the call went out for student volunteers, he responded in spite of, and because of, his teachers at Hayes, an all-black high school.
"In class, they'd say, `Don't leave campus or you'll be expelled,' " Mr. Gay recalled. "But in private, they'd say, `Go on. I can't do it, I'd lose my job. But do it up. Keep it up.' "
The first time he marched, he was picked up by the police near a hot dog stand on Second Avenue. The next day, he was arrested for praying and blocking the entrance to the Pizitz department store, and spent three days in the city jail.
The third time he went, he got wet. "The hoses were so strong," he said. "And it was warm water, too. It would knock us all over the place, send you tumbling."
Mr. Gay said he had to march, "like a turtle has to migrate where it came from."
"We didn't understand the effect it would have on the nation," he said. "But it was such an eye-opener, that you had atrocities taking place right here. All because someone wanted to drink water from a fountain, try on an outfit before buying it, or eat from a lunch counter."
His five children, Mr. Gay said, have grown up in a world so different that they do not really understand what he went through. "Now, a person can make him or herself what they want to be," he said. "The thing was, opening the door. That's the point, just opening the door so I could have the same opportunity as any other person."
He said he has tried to convey his experience to his children, with limited success. "They'd just sit there with their mouth open, like it's unreal," he said. "I think they feel I'm too tough on them. I feel a kid should not be passive and complacent. They should take advantage of every opportunity that comes their way, because we did not have those opportunities."
At 11, Mr. Woods's daughter, Linda Cal, hid with her two sisters in their father's Cadillac to ride to the demonstrations. "People were treating my dad so bad, and all he was trying to do was to make things better for blacks," Ms. Woods, now 51 and a grandmother of three, said. "It made me want to get involved."
Claressie Berry Hardy, 53, too, wanted to join the protests as a way of sticking up for her parents though they played no role in the movement, for fear of losing their jobs. She was 13 when she went to her first sit-in, at a white church. Then she took a seat at the J. J. Newberry lunch counter. She got arrested after picketing H. L. Green, a department store, on May 1, 1963.
"I was so excited about going to jail," she said. "We knew that the goal was to fill the jails up, and show we meant business, and that then things would change for the city, for blacks, and for my parents."
Ms. Hardy recalled riding to an aunt's house as a little girl and seeing banners advertising the circus and white children walking from it holding bright balloons. "I said, `Daddy, why can't we go to the circus?' and he'd say, `It's only for white children,' " she said. "I can always see the hurt in my daddy's face, because his children couldn't enjoy these things."
She was 25 or 26 when she attended the circus for the first time, with her own toddler. She took him every year until he was in the eighth grade. "He finally said, `I'm too old to go,"' she said. "But I have a great-niece, and she's 3, so I can take her now. I'm making up for lost time."
Ms. Hardy's little sister, Sandra Berry Pratt, had a tantrum when Claressie got arrested. "If my sister went, I wanted to go also," Ms. Pratt said. "Finally, my dad gave in. That next morning, my mom took me down to 16th Street Baptist Church. They gave me a picket sign, and five minutes after we got to H. L. Green, the police are pulling up. The next thing I know the dogs were there, and we got on a bus.
"The last thing I remember, was seeing my mom across the street, watching us, jumping up and down in her yellow dress, yellow pumps, and yellow bag cheering. That made me feel good, like I was doing what my parents couldn't do."
Seven days later, when the two sisters were released from jail, they arrived back on their street to a standing ovation from their neighbors.
As a mother, and a grandmother, too, Ms. Pratt worries that her short-lived but intense experience in the civil rights movement is lost on her heirs. "We made a way for them," she said. "Some of the things they're doing now, like my son up in New York trying to become a movie star back in the day, he couldn't do that. There was Sidney Poitier and Harry Belafonte, that's it. Now, the door's wide open."
Gloria Washington Lewis, 56, recalled peanut butter sandwiches, and an attempted rape.
She had her own reasons for protesting. "I wanted to know why I couldn't ride a train, why I couldn't see a duck in a park," she said. "Those are wounds that don't ever heal." And her father, a coal miner afraid of risking his job, winked. "He had a little look in his eyes: I can't go, but you can,' " she said.
She was arrested at City Hall after sneaking through police lines and finally pulling a poster from her pants. "Free at Last," it said. She had just turned 16, but gave her age as 15, hoping for more lenient treatment. She did not get it.
At the state fairgrounds where Ms. Lewis and hundreds of other girls were jailed and fed peanut butter sandwiches, she shared a bunkbed with one girl who arrived disheveled, "a mess, her clothes torn off."
The girl said the officer who arrested her had raped her in the back of a police wagon. That night, a man in uniform tried to attack the same girl, Ms. Lewis said. She and a few other girls fended him off, but the next day they were charged with attacking him and taken to the county jail.
She said she spent two weeks in the stifling "sweat box," then waited even longer for someone to figure out where she was and get her. "Every time somebody would get out, I'd say, `Call my daddy,' " she said. "But the jail kept saying I wasn't there."
Gwendolyn Sanders Gamble, released from juvenile hall after eight days, went right back into the streets. Over the next few weeks, she said, "I cannot tell you how many times that water hit us in the face, and how many times in Kelly Ingram Park that water swept us off our feet."
She had been radicalized in the seventh grade, when she looked in a schoolbook and saw that a white fifth grader had used it last. "I realized then I was being robbed of a good education," she said.
But nothing prepared her for the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church, on Sept. 15, 1963. She knew two of the four girls who were killed; Cynthia Wesley, 14, was a schoolmate.
Her own four children have been told many times about the struggle, about the spring of 1963, about the church bombing, about their mother's trip to the March on Washington, about her injuries in a Klan and police ambush at a demonstration in St. Augustine, Fla., in 1964.
But they, too, do not really get it, Ms. Gamble said. "I don't think any of the children do. Even the adults. If you were not directly involved, you don't understand what we went through to get where we are today. You know, if I've never had a steak, I couldn't tell you what it tastes like.
"But I try," she said. "I teach them the way of life, how we got from Point A to Point B. I let them know that it took all of us. That it's not I, my, me it's us, we. And that, if we had to go to jail today, I'd probably be the first one in line."