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Children who marched for equal rights inspire a new generation

Fifty-five years ago, thousands of African-American children walked out of their schools and began a peaceful march in Birmingham, Alabama, to protest segregation. They were met with attack dogs and water hoses. For a new generation of students, traveling to Birmingham has made that moment in history come alive. Special correspondent Lisa Stark reports.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    It was a moment that changed America.

    Fifty-five years ago this month, thousands of African-American children walked out of their schools and began a peaceful march in Birmingham, Alabama, to protest segregation.

    They were met with attack dogs and water hoses. The disturbing images shocked the nation and became the catalyst for the Civil Rights Act.

    This moment in history has now come alive for a group of students who traveled to Birmingham.

    Special correspondent Lisa Stark of our partner Education Week went along with them.

    It’s part of our series Race Matters.

  • Man:

    Everywhere that I went, this is what I always saw, “Colored” and “White.”

  • Lisa Stark:

    These fifth and sixth graders are mesmerized.

  • Man:

    Our restaurants, our dentist’s office, our doctor’s office, everywhere that we went, this is what we always saw when I was your age.

  • Lisa Stark:

    John Alexander (ph) and Charles Avery (ph) grew up in the segregated South.

  • Man:

    My dad asked me, what is your greatest ambition in life, son? I said to drink out of that water fountain, talking about that white water foundation. I just wanted to know what it tastes like.

  • Lisa Stark:

    For those listening, these stories are now much more than just a chapter in a history book.

    Here’s Amari and Avion.

  • Avion:

    They used the word “I,” as in like, they’re themselves, so you’re actually looking at the person.

  • Amari:

    We get to hear their perspective on it, because nobody can tell their story better than the person who actually experienced it.

  • Francesca Peck:

    We believe in the power of immersion and the power of bringing history to life for our students.

  • Lisa Stark:

    Francesca Peck is the director of culture and character for the Polaris Charter Academy in Chicago, a school with an in-depth curriculum that stresses first-hand learning.

  • Francesca Peck:

    Let’s come immerse ourselves, let’s come experience it, let’s come to the primary source and get a feel of what it was like to live at that time.

  • Lisa Stark:

    To do that, these Chicago fifth and sixth graders traveled 10 hours and more than 600 miles, from Illinois to Alabama.

  • Francesca Peck:

    Welcome to Birmingham, ladies and gentlemen. Give yourselves a round of applause. We have made it.

    (CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)

  • Lisa Stark:

    Birmingham, the site of the 1963 Children’s Crusade. Thousands of young black students left their classrooms to march against segregation.

    These students are here to examine and record their own thoughts on what transpired back then and why.

    This visit to Birmingham isn’t a field trip. It’s fieldwork. And it puts the students right at the center of their own research project. It comes after a year of preparation in the classroom, studying the civil rights movement.

  • Narrator:

    And they were singing one word over and over.

  • Lisa Stark:

    They have watched documentaries.

  • Martin Luther King Jr.:

    Don’t worry about your children. And they are going to be all right.

  • Lisa Stark:

    Analyzed photographs.

  • Francesca Peck:

    What are they trying to accomplish?

  • Student:

    They’re trying to accomplish their freedom. They’re trying to earn what they work for.

  • Lisa Stark:

    Dissected first-hand accounts and studied the arc of civil rights history.

    Polaris Charter Academy is largely African-American and low-income. The school’s mission includes instilling a sense of activism and social justice.

  • Francesca Peck:

    It’s not just that children are critical thinkers and that children are producing high-quality work and that they are of, like, great character, but really that they see themselves as agents of change in their community.

  • Lisa Stark:

    So, they’re here retracing steps child activists took 55 years ago, visiting the 16th Street Baptist Church, where marchers gathered.

  • Avion:

    Being inside of it made me feel kind of excited, because I knew that Martin Luther King was in that same exact spot, in that same exact place.

  • Lisa Stark:

    Studying the memorials in the park, where authorities decades ago unleashed dogs and water hoses against the protesters.

  • Student:

    I feel like — I kind of feel angry.

  • Francesca Peck:

    Tell me more. Why?

  • Student:

    The white people want the dogs to bite humans, and they’re not treating humans as humans.

  • Amari:

    They teach people in kindergarten that everyone is equal and to just be kind. And the fact that they were so brutal to African-Americans is not OK.

  • Lisa Stark:

    They’re confronting some of the most frightening symbols of the time and meeting men and women who were young students themselves when they marched for equal rights.

    Janice Kelsey was 16 during what became known as the Children’s Crusade.

  • Janice Kelsey:

    We sang “We Shall Overcome,” and we walked out in pairs. And we were stopped by police officers, who told us , “You stay in this line, you’re going to jail.”

    I had already made up my mind I was going to jail, and that’s exactly where I went for four days.

  • Raymond Goolsby:

    So, this is holy ground, all of this, young people. All of this is where it all happened.

  • Lisa Stark:

    Raymond Goolsby was 17 at the time and recalls his fear waiting in the 16th Street Baptist Church to begin the march.

  • Raymond Goolsby:

    Now, my group was the first group out, and I’m sitting there shaking like a leaf on a tree in the building before we walked out. And I say, man, I don’t know whether I want to do this.

    All those billy club, police standing out there with the billy clubs.

  • Lisa Stark:

    The stark images from that time, now memorialized, shocked the nation, leading to a fierce backlash.

    Birmingham leaders buckled, releasing the students from jail and agreeing to begin desegregation.

  • Nina:

    I feel thankful for the people that went through all this, because if they wouldn’t have went through it, that means I would have had to went through it. And I know, for me right now, I wouldn’t be that brave enough to do what they did.

  • Lisa Stark:

    Four months later, angry white supremacists would place a bomb at the 16th Street Baptist Church, killing four young girls, including Cynthia Wesley, Janice Kelsey’s close friend.

  • Janice Kelsey:

    Because she gave up her life for things that I believed in, then agreed to talk about it to young people, so that you will know what it took to get to where we are.

  • Lisa Stark:

    Today, of course, Birmingham is a very different city, the nation a different place. But these students are encouraged to connect the past with the present.

  • Francesca Peck:

    We are here to ask the question, how do members of a community effect change?

  • Lisa Stark:

    If you guys could march today, what would you march for?

  • Lance:

    Well one, I would march for gun violence, and I would also march for, like, justice.

  • Lisa Stark:

    What about you? What would you march for today?

  • Avion:

    I would march for the same things as Lance, peace and gun violence, so people could stop killing each other.

  • Lisa Stark:

    Many of these students live in neighborhoods touched by violence.

  • Trinity:

    You know, like, we need to make a difference, but it’s just, like, can really one person make a difference in the world?

  • Lance:

     Like, some people don’t believe that kids could actually made a change, but I believe kids can actually make a change.

  • Lisa Stark:

    With encouragement from those who have come before.

  • Raymond Goolsby:

    What you got to do is study hard, and you will be able to compete for whatever you want to do. The sky’s the limit with you young people. The sky is the limit.

  • Lisa Stark:

    A future shaped by those early civil rights activists.

  • Amari:

    I will definitely remember it because it’s a part of my history, because it’s a part of people who are like me. And it’s our story. And this generation, they have to decide on whether they’re going to make a story like that generation did.

  • Lisa Stark:

    For the “PBS NewsHour” and Education week, I’m Lisa Stark in Birmingham, Alabama.

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