How the Birmingham Children’s March turned one teen into a freedom fighter

Janice Wesley Kelsey feels pride and pain when she thinks about her role in the Children’s Crusade.    

On May 2, 1963, Kelsey and more than a thousand other children – some as young as seven – ditched school to gather near 16th Street Baptist Church to protest segregation in downtown Birmingham, Ala. In the coming days, thousands more children would join them with protest signs and a promise of nonviolence. The young demonstrators marched on despite the violence they met from police and firefighters, triggering a call for action from President John F. Kennedy.  

Although Kelsey wasn’t attacked by police dogs or doused by high-pressure fire hoses, she was among the hundreds of children jailed for multiple days. Then a 16-year-old eleventh grader, Kelsey didn’t see herself the young foot soldier as people today see her. In her book, “I Woke Up with My Mind on Freedom,” Kelsey talks about how the Children’s Crusade shaped her and how the turmoil following the deadly 16th Street Baptist Church bombing nearly silenced her with guilt 

She may not have been a major organizer for the Children Crusade, also known as the Children’s March. But there’s no criteria when it comes to creating change in the world, she said.  

“You don’t have to be a leader in a movement in order to make a difference,” Kelsey said. “I was not in charge of anything. I was just one of many. As long as it’s something that you believe in and you’re doing your part, then change came happen and it doesn’t have to come at your direction.”  

Challenging injustice with nonviolence

Kelsey was unaware of how much of a stronghold segregation had on her life before the Children’s Crusade.  

She knew she lived in a colored-coded world where she couldn’t eat at certain restaurants or sit in certain sections of the bus. If she wanted to see a movie, she knew she had to enjoy it from the balcony after entering the theater from the back stairwell. But her parents sheltered Kelsey and her siblings from conversations about racial violence and inequity. So in Kelsey’s young mind, segregation meant separation and nothing more.  

Her worldview changed when she went to her first mass meeting at New Pilgrim Baptist Church in the spring 1963, initially motivated by the “young, good looking” preachers a friend said led the Monday meetings.  

The meetings had the same vigor as a Sunday sermon. Pastors who would later become icons shouted the gospel of Civil Rights. Praise and freedom songs electrified the church. After the elaborate singing and speech-making, the Rev. James Bevel, a Mississippi-born activist who was part of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, invited the teens to meet with him in the back of the church. After riling the teens up with their school pride, Bevel pointed out that white schools received better treatment than Black schools.  

For example, Samuel Ullman High School, the Black school Kelsey attended, had outdated textbooks and one electric typewriter; white schools had several. And although Ullman High’s colors were green and gold, its football team wore blue-and-white hand-me-down helmets from a white high school 

“I was being mistreated and I didn’t even know it. So it bothered me that this was happening,” she said. “That motivated me to want to do something about it.”  

Bevel recruited children to join the movement because they had less to lose. Adult participation during the Civil Rights Movement was dwindling at that time due to the risk of Black parents losing their jobs. Despite hesitation from activists about putting children at the forefront of protests, Bevel organized the Children’s Crusade to reinvigorate the movement. 

Kelsey started attending youth nonviolent workshops, which were held at different churches, including 16th Street Baptist Church. Activists prepared the children and teens by watching films of lunch counter sit-ins, where white people spat on, pushed and shouted slurs at protestors.  

Bevel and other organizers stressed the importance of nonviolent reactions. If someone were to hit them, they couldn’t fight back. If someone said something ugly to them, they couldn’t talk back. Kneeling in prayer or singing freedom songs were the only tools at their disposal, Kelsey said.  

 “It was a new way of thinking about behavior, but I wasn’t a violent person anyway,” Kelsey said. “I thought I could defend myself, but I guess I was so engaged in doing something about my situation, if it meant I had to refrain from reacting in that way then I was willing to make that sacrifice.”  

Activists didn’t tiptoe around the potential of being jailed, either. Teens were advised to pack their toiletries and bring a light jacket just in case they had to spend a night behind bars. Kelsey didn’t fear jail. With other classmates going to the protest as well, jail time felt more like a slumber party with friends who were all going to stand together for a common cause.  

“We were saying that on ‘D Day’ we’re going to go and get our freedom,” Kelsey said, referring to the first day of the March. “I didn’t have sense enough to be afraid about something happening or how uncomfortable jail might be. I was excited about going to get this business straight, you know.” 

‘We went to jail to get our freedom’

Kelsey’s mother sensed something was happening when she saw her child pack her purse with toothpaste, deodorant, soap the morning of march. Kelsey didn’t tell her parents about the demonstration because she didn’t want them to scare her from doing what she felt was right. But Kelsey’s mother gave a warning: “I’m sending you to school. Now, don’t you go and get yourself in trouble because I don’t have any money to get you out.”  

“Yes, ma’am,” Kelsey told her mother, which technically wasn’t a lie as she was going to school — she just wasn’t staying there.  

The walk to school that day was like walking to a pep rally. Students were already singing “We Shall Overcome” and “Ain’t Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me ‘Round,” and chatting about the prospect of going to jail and making sure everyone was joining the protest. 

Some school administrators didn’t hold the same excitement. The football coach threatened to kick players off the team in they attended the march. Some schools chained doors to keep children from leaving.  

But after the first period bell rang, students started leaving in droves, some planning to leap from windows. Kelsey walked out the front door, right past the principal. Kelsey and her friends started their 30-minute trek to 16th Street Baptist Church, where they encountered a celebratory atmosphere free of fear despite the police presence.  

From the top of the church steps, Bevel directed the children into the sanctuary where he talked about the importance of the day.  

“I know my mind was already made up. So, it wasn’t any coaching necessary for me,” Kelsey said.  

The children didn’t burst out of the church doors all at once. They marched out in waves of 50, lined up in pairs. Kelsey was part of the first group of children who kicked off the march singing “We Shall Overcome” as they made their way towards city hall. They only made it a half-block when they were stopped by a cop, flanked by fellow armed officers, yelling through a microphone that they were in violation of a city ordinance against parading without a permit and threatening them with jail if they continued. 

It was the first time since joining the movement that Kelsey felt fear.  

“I remember my dad used to tell my brothers, ‘Y’all stay in the front yard or on the porch when the streetlights come on because I don’t want the police to come and get you,’” she said. “So my feeling about the police was not they are the safety keepers. It was ‘they’ll get you.’” 

Kelsey started feeling conflicted. An adult – a white man at that – was giving her a command she planned to disobey. The voice of a protestor who started singing a freedom song broke through the intimidation. Kelsey’s fear began to soften. She held her ground and sang loudly along with the others.  

Like hundreds of children who would march after them, police gathered the young protestors into paddy wagons headed to the county jail, where their belongings were confiscated and their fingerprints and mugshots taken. The girls were placed in a cold area with several cells, a toilet without partitions for privacy and bunk beds without mattresses.  

While the setup was awkward, the youth found comfort in each other as they sang songs and sat on top of each other if the floor became too cold. The conditions didn’t diminish Kelsey’s pride in participating in the march, which she proudly declared to the inmates who were serving the children dinner during their first night in jail.  

“They were asking, ‘What’s going on? Why are all these kids here?’ And we were happy to tell them that we went to jail to get our freedom,” Kelsey said.  

As more children were arrested during the second day of the Children’s Crusade, Kelsey and her friends would climb on top of each other to look out the window towards Linn Park, which is less than a mile away from 16th Street Baptist Church. They noticed some commotion but couldn’t make out what was happening at the time.  

Kelsey didn’t learn what they were looking at until later. Bull Connor gave law enforcement and firemen orders to crackdown on the protest. Some of the young protesters had to get stitches from police dog bites. The force from the high-pressure fire hoses knocked children off their feet. More children were arrested as they continued to protest.  

Kelsey and other protesters were put onto a school bus. The kids didn’t know where they were going at first. When the bus arrived at the county fairgrounds, Kelsey and the other children screamed and jumped with excitement. Black people were only allowed on the fairgrounds during “colored days.” So the only time Kelsey could experience the joy of the fair was when her father drove by the fairgrounds, awed by the Ferris wheel and taken in by the smell of popcorn.  

Of course, the kids weren’t there for fun. They were being transferred to a makeshift jail that was created on the fairgrounds to keep up with the large number of arrests. While Kelsey said conditions were slightly better (at least the fairgrounds had private bathrooms and some of the beds had mattresses.) But she did start to hear reports of older inmates making sexual comments at children.  

Kelsey said one white woman, a trusty, commented on her “damn pretty legs.” 

“She didn’t touch me, but it scared the devil out of me for her to say something like that to me. I didn’t sleep a wink that night, but she did not approach me any further,” Kelsey recalls. 

After four days, on Sunday evening, her parents got her out of the makeshift jail. Her mother, emotionally drained from worry, grounded her. But she had no one to hang out with because her friends were either in jail or weren’t at school at all after the Birmingham Board of Education decided to expel students who were part of the protest. Kelsey and her brother were charged with parading without a permit.  

Kelsey wore the charge like a badge of honor, especially after she started seeing signs of progress as images from the Children’s Crusade caught the attention of the nation. On May 10, civil rights leaders met with city officials and business owners and came to an agreement to desegregate the businesses. The color-coded world Kelsey had known for so long seemed to be disappearing as “Whites only” signs were taken down. The decision to expel students was overturned by the court of appeals and one of Kelsey’s friends was able to enroll in an all-white school.  

President John F. Kennedy pushed for civil rights legislation during an address in June 1963 cited the fact that “the events in Birmingham and elsewhere have so increased cries for equality that no city or state or legislative body can prudently choose to ignore them.” About two months later, hundreds of thousands of people participated in the March on Washington. 

“Things like that made me think, ‘Oh, yes. We did what we set out to accomplish,’” Kelsey said.  “I really didn’t think anything bad would happen until the 15th of September (1963) – when the church was bombed.”  

Hurting, healing and empowering 

The bombing of 16th Street Baptist Church shook Birmingham physically and spiritually. The act of racial violence cut short the lives of four girls. Addie Mae Collins, Cynthia Wesley and Carole Robertson were 14. Carol Denise McNair was 11. 

Kelsey wasn’t a member of the church, but she was close to some of the dead – especially Cynthia Wesley. Kelsey’s maiden name was also Wesley. Although the girls weren’t related, they told people they were sisters.  

Before the dead were fully identified, rumors that one of the “Wesley girls” died prompted calls to Kelsey’s family to express their condolences.  

Kelsey blamed herself for the death of Cynthia, who had not participated in the march, because some of the mass meetings for the march were held at 16th Street Baptist Church.  

“I thought they killed the wrong Wesley girl,” Kelsey said. “Cynthia didn’t walk out of school. She didn’t go to jail and she died.  

Kelsey, ill with regret, didn’t speak about the march or the bombing until 20 years later. She would later become an educator for Birmingham City Schools. In 1983, a teacher friend asked her to speak to a group of high school seniors about the Civil Rights Movement and her arrest. Emotions poured out when a friend showed Kelsey a picture of her with friends sitting on the floor of the makeshift jail at the fairgrounds. 

“I just lost it,” Kelsey said. “I cried almost uncontrollably. had put that so far in the back of my mind thinking that nobody cares. Don’t nobody want to hear that. Don’t you go there.”  

Almost 20 years after speaking to that class, another friend who supervised history teachers kept encouraging Kelsey to write her own book about what happened. After doing multiple interviews about the march, Kelsey decided to narrate her own story. As she started taking notes and processing how she felt, the book became a healing salve for her emotional wounds. She doesn’t get as emotional now. Oftentimes, it’s the freedom songs that trigger her tears.  

“I think I do okay, but it’s not all gone. It’ll go it’ll go with me to my grave the thoughts and about what I did,” Kelsey said.  

She also hopes the book will give generations of children a first-person account of what happened in 1963 because they too have the power to stand up for their rights – especially since those rights are being challenged today. Now 75, Kelsey is worried about what she is seeing in the courts and in state legislatures. Lawmakers in Georgia are rolling back voting rights that her generation fought so hard for. Debates about critical race theory are trying to sanitize the history that shifted laws closer to America’s ideals of “liberty and justice for all.” Reproductive healthcare advocates are holding their breath to see if the U.S. Supreme Court will overturn Roe V. Wade.  

Kelsey said her generation was informed and empowered by the movement. She has advice for young people today who see injustices in their community:  

“First, you have to educate yourself and learn what the problem is and then have the courage to speak up, speak out, do something,” she said. “John Lewis used to say, ‘Make some good trouble.’  You can write letters. You can boycott. You can do whatever is within your power to call attention to the injustice.”  

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