The Children’s Crusade protests in Birmingham, Ala. began on this day in 1963, led by Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) leaders Martin Luther King Jr. and Rev. James Bevel. Around 1,000 students skipped class in the city in protest of segregation when police chief Bull Connor unleashed attack dogs and fire hoses to corral the students. Today in New York, a pair of women who marched as teens will publicly thank a New York firefighter union for speaking out against the atrocity.
The Children’s Crusade was essentially the SCLC’s last push in gathering support for its protests in Alabama. King didn’t want to use the students at first, but was reportedly convinced by Bevel to go along with the plan. Bevel felt that using adults would put them at risk for losing their jobs and that the students wouldn’t have as much to lose. Malcolm X was angered at the use of students and considered it a selfish and dangerous tactic.
The march took place on May 2, with many students landing in jail for days for nonviolent civil disobedience. The next day, several more students and protesters both Black and white took to the Birmingham streets. Connor ordered the police and fire department to use deadly force to control the swelling crowds. The New York City Fire Officers Association was the one of the few major unions to speak out publicly against the BFD’s use of water hoses on the students.
The association was progressive in its stance, and filed a resolution in July of that year blasting the Birmingham authorities. In an exclusive New York Daily News report, marchers Gwendolyn Gamble and Janice Kelsey, both now in their 60s, will meet with New York Fire Department officials in a ceremony organized by New York congresswoman Carolyn Maloney. In an interview with the paper, the women expressed gratitude towards the firefighters group and applauded their outspoken stance.
“They were courageous,” one of the women, said Ms. Gamble. “I really respect them, I cherish them, I honor what they do for people.”
The pictures and media coverage of the events in Birmingham sparked anger and protests nationwide. As noted by historians, the news made its way to the desk of President John F. Kennedy, who signed the Civil Rights Act Of 1964 partly as a result of the horrors that unfolded at the Children’s Crusade march.