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Volume VIII Preview: Martin Luther King, Jr.'s Address to Birmingham's Expelled and Suspended Children Crusaders

A sculpture designed by Ronald S. McDowell depicts a young person confronting a police officer and dog in Birmingham's Kelly Ingram Park. Photograph by Carol M. Highsmith courtesy of the Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division.

We are excited to preview some of our lesser-known documents included in the upcoming Volume VIII (September 1962–December 1963). We continue to work hard to complete the manuscript so you can have full access to these documents soon!

By Brynn Raymond, Research Assistant

On 20 May 1963, Birmingham superintendent of schools Theo R. Wright announced the Board of Education’s decision to expel 1,081 high schoolers and suspend many younger elementary and middle school children who had taken part in demonstrations during the Birmingham campaign. The campaign, which demanded the desegregation of downtown stores and increased job opportunities for black citizens, had begun on 3 April, but by the end of the month, it lacked the volunteers and publicity necessary to challenge the power structure of “the most segregated city in America.” Though Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) staff member James Bevel’s solution to recruit elementary, middle, and high school volunteers drew heavy criticism, it also proved effective. Beginning on 2 May, thousands of young people walked out of school to flood Birmingham’s streets and then its jails, overwhelming local authorities and drawing international scrutiny as city police confronted children with batons, dogs, and fire hoses. The Children’s Crusade secured the 10 May truce agreement with white Birmingham leaders, and yet the Board of Education’s retaliatory ruling threatened to compromise the futures of thousands of young activists. In this issue, we preview King’s impromptu 21 May remarks to the suspended and expelled marchers in which his characterization of Birmingham’s children crusaders as politically informed participants challenges Birmingham and federal officials’ dismissal of students as undisciplined or pawns manipulated by “outside agitators.”

At the height of the youth-led demonstrations, fewer than 900 black high schoolers were in attendance out of a total enrollment of approximately 7,500, causing Governor George Wallace to remark on “the delinquency of minors” and leading Wright to complain that civil rights leaders were effectively telling volunteers, “We’re going to give you a holiday from school.” Yet, student engagement with King’s address demonstrates that far from a thoughtless “holiday,” they were aware of the weight of their actions both in leaving school and in determining the best way to place pressure on the city to grant their reinstatement. Indeed, the 20 May decision led to a crisis of strategy within SCLC. Following the Board of Education’s ruling, Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights (ACMHR) and SCLC staff members including Bevel distributed four thousand leaflets across the campuses of Birmingham’s black high schools that called for a complete boycott, proclaiming, “Our motto must remain the same: ‘All stay out until all can get in.’” Alarmed that such a boycott would cause Birmingham’s white businessmen to back out of the uneasy truce agreement, King traveled to Birmingham for a strategy session with ACMHR and SCLC staff members and instructed those who had not been suspended or expelled to report to school as usual while civil rights leaders located a solution. 

The following morning, many of the suspended and expelled students gathered outside of King’s room at the A. G. Gaston Motel to demand further action, but rather than merely imparting instructions, King instead drew them into a strategy session that centered a collaborative “we.” Calling the board's decision “a terrible, brutal, unjust, and certainly an unwise act,” King reassured, “We have said all along, as we started and moved on through this struggle, that we would stay together, that we would go up together or we would go down together.” He then transparently divulged the details of his strategy session with ACMHR and SCLC staff, stating that civil rights leaders planned to file a suit in federal district court to have the students reinstated on the basis that they were denied a hearing. Encouraging his audience to be wary of “those who are trying to precipitate some incident that will throw the community in so much confusion that the merchants will say that we broke our promise,” King asked them, “Now, remember the school board is appointed by who?” Film footage of the meeting captured one student responding “Connor” before others also joined in naming Birmingham’s segregationist public safety commissioner Eugene “Bull” Connor as the individual responsible for appointing both the school board and the superintendent. King then declared, “We’re not going to allow him to pull us into the trap.” In his remarks, King thereby guided young activists through his decision-making process. Moreover, the young marchers demonstrated an awareness of Birmingham’s power structure and a willingness to trust leadership as they agreed to put aside any hasty action in the interest of a more long-term legal strategy.

In the legal arena, however, those expelled and suspended continued to be characterized as opportunistic or as those of mere pawns. NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund counsel Constance Baker Motley argued their case before Judge Clarence W. Allgood on the morning of 22 May, but Allgood, one of President John F. Kennedy’s several conservative southern judicial appointments that drew criticism from civil rights leaders, denied Motley’s request for a temporary restraining order against Wright. He instead noted that he had been “shocked to see hundreds of school children ranging in age from six to sixteen running loose and wild without direction over the streets of Birmingham,” suggesting that many of the young demonstrators had been “persuaded” to “serve the purpose of those who wish to exploit them.” Allgood’s characterization therefore aligned with Wright’s, who had criticized “outside agitation” and the manipulations of “one person from Cincinnati” (in reference to Birmingham activist Fred Shuttlesworth, who had relocated north for his own safety) and “two from Atlanta” (in reference to King and Ralph Abernathy) as the cause of students’ truancy. 

Both King’s 21 May address and the final ruling in the students’ favor counter such narratives and instead situate students’ participation in the larger national liberation struggle without dismissing its local roots. In his address, King informed the young activists of a precedent in which the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in favor of nine students who were expelled from Alabama State College in 1960 for participating in sit-in demonstrations in Montgomery, thereby contextualizing the Birmingham marchers’ actions within the larger freedom movement. Yet King also highlighted the uniqueness of the Birmingham campaign, emphasizing the gains the young marchers had already secured and claiming, “They are putting you out of school, but your willingness to go to jail will make jobs possible for everybody else who will finish school.” King concluded, “the things that are being done in such a creative manner by you will make Birmingham a better city for everybody,” to which the audience responded with a chorus of “That’s right.” 

Fifth Circuit Court judge Elbert Tuttle’s final ruling on the case better aligned with King’s characterization of youth participation than with that of Allgood and local Birmingham officials. After Allgood’s unfavorable ruling on the morning of 22 May, Motley flew to Atlanta to appeal the decision to Judge Tuttle, presenting as plaintiff for the case suspended fifth-grader Linda Cal Woods, the daughter of local leader Reverend Calvin Woods, who had hidden in the back of her father’s car in order to join the children’s march. Motley’s choice to highlight the activism of a local girl and her father countered characterizations of the campaign as solely directed by “outside agitators,” and, like King in his address, Motley’s argument also placed the demonstrations within a larger framework, citing the Supreme Court’s recent ruling overturning thirty-one convictions related to protesting against segregation. Tuttle ultimately agreed with Motley’s reasoning, concurring that the Supreme Court had just upheld the right to demonstrate against segregationist laws and concluding, “It seems plain that we have here a case of some 1,000 students who were engaging in legally permissible activities, illegally arrested for exercising their constitutional right.” Thereby characterizing schoolchildren as thoughtful citizens rather than unruly truants, Tuttle went further by also castigating both Allgood and the Birmingham Board of Education, noting that it was “shocking to me that this school board has taken action that was the equivalent of knocking out five hundred student years of study.” Claiming that “irreparable injury” would befall Linda and others being denied access to education unless the expulsions and suspensions were overturned, Tuttle ordered that Wright must not only reinstate them but also find a means to ensure their return to the classroom by the following morning. 

News spread quickly via radio, television, and word of mouth, and that night, as one Baltimore Afro-American article stated, “A jubilant, hilariously happy, screaming, flag-waving mass of 4,000 freedom fighters staged a mammoth victory celebration that almost tore the roof off historic St. James Church.” In his 22 May address to the celebrating students and their families, King once again highlighted the relationship between local and national movements, stating, “The most beautiful thing is that you boys and girls were willing to get out and march and go to jail, if necessary. You wanted to be free like anybody else. You have given hope to people all over the world. Look at Greensboro, at Durham, at Nashville and Raleigh. There’s no way to stop this move for freedom now.” King’s remarks placed student activism within a national context while also recognizing the centrality of local movements, showing how local demonstrations precipitate other local movements that together make up a larger, interconnected freedom struggle.

Moreover, photographs from the celebratory mass meeting depict students waving hundreds of American flags that read as an indictment of interpretations of their actions as thoughtless, manipulated, or broadly “un-American.” Indeed, an 18 May 1963 Birmingham Post-Herald article reveals that just prior to their decision to suspend and expel young demonstrators, the Birmingham Board of Education ruled that the following year’s educational program would emphasize Americanism with the slogan of “The Development of Character Through the Study of Principles of Our American Way of Life.” In the announcement, Wright “said he intended to put instruction of Americanism ‘in every classroom’ next term.” Since Wright’s and other Birmingham officials’ definition of Americanism apparently did not include the right to protest for freedom and equality, the defiant waving of American flags after students were reinstated implicitly calls the officials’ definitions of American values and traditions into question. Instead, the flags call back to SCLC’s mission to save the soul of America. Despite a sharp contest over the meaning of their participation in demonstrations, Birmingham’s children crusaders repeatedly demonstrated their savvy, their patience, and their determination, as King stated in his 21 May address, to “redeem the soul of this city and the soul of this nation.”