This Day in History

May 2, 1963: Children of Birmingham Fill the Jails

Time Periods: 1961
Themes: Civil Rights Movements, Democracy & Citizenship, Education, Laws & Citizen Rights
Police send a group of African American school children to jail in Birmingham, Ala. on May 4, 1963. (Bill Hudson/AP)

Police send a group of African American school children to jail in Birmingham, Ala. on May 4, 1963. Photo by Bill Hudson. Source: CRMVet

Today marks the anniversary of one of the most powerful and effective protests in U.S. history of racial injustice: the Birmingham Children’s Crusade.

Here is a description from the Civil Rights Movement Archive:

Thursday, May 2nd, is “D-Day” as students “ditch” class to march for justice. In disciplined groups of 50, children singing freedom songs march out of 16th Street Baptist church two-by-two. When each group is arrested, another takes its place.

There are not enough cops to contain them, and police reinforcements are hurriedly summoned. By the end of the day almost 1,000 kids have been jailed.

The next day, Friday May 3rd, a thousand more students cut class to assemble at 16th Street church. With the jails already filled to capacity, and the number of marchers growing, Eugene “Bull” Connor, the Commissioner of Public Safety in charge of the police and fire departments, tries to suppress the movement with violence. Instead of arresting the first group of marchers he orders his fire department to disperse them with firehoses.

But the students hold their ground, singing “Freedom” to the tune of the ancient hymn “Amen.” Connor orders the water pressure increased to knock them off their feet and wash them away. Still singing, the young protesters sit down on the pavement and hunch their backs against the torrent. Continue reading.

Teach about this event with a book for middle school students, We’ve Got a Job: The 1963 Birmingham Children’s March, based on oral histories of Children’s March participants and with excerpts from Eyes on the Prize. (We also recommend the documentary for classrooms produced by Learning for Justice called Mighty Times: Children’s March. However, it is not available to stream. Check your library for a DVD copy.)