Into the Valley of Death: Atlanta to Birmingham


That was not the way the freedom riders approached Birmingham, Alabama in 1961.  Birmingham was the biggest and considered the baddest city in the South.  Nickname: Bombingham.  There was no air conditioning and monitors for movies did not exist.  While we are watching the video, “The Children’s March,” they were facing violence, jail, and even death.  (Did you know there were only a handful of freedom riders on each of the buses?  There were also other passengers on those buses going from from one town to the next, not making civil rights history.  They suffered with the same terror and pain.)

And then there was Birmingham in 1963.  It wasn’t freedom rides then, it was the Children’s March.  That’s the topic of our tour today.  And, today I begin to feel an old fear.  In the cool bus, my palms sweat, my heart beats faster, and the Movement standards and Movement videos “seem to be playing my life with their songs.”  I don’t think anyone else in the class was a civil rights worker, although they may have suffered because of prejudice.  I wonder if anyone here feels the way I feel.  This  must mean something different to them – perhaps even more than it does to me.

The march occurred in May.  The local Negro leadership had conducted non-violent demonstrations and they were met by billy clubs and police dogs.  Martin Luther King had already been jailed.  (It was at this time he penned “Letter from Birmingham Jail.” ) So high school students were recruited to stage a march. Teenagers came from miles to demonstrate non-violently for freedom and equality.  “Bull” Connor, Birmingham Public Safety Commissioner, refrained from the same techniques on the first day.  The students left the churches in groups at preset intervals.The city enlisted school buses to carry the children to jail.  975 were arrested.  Martin Luther King, Jr. told the parents, “Don’t hold the children back, because they want to go to jail.”

On the second day the students began again, so Connor changed tactics.  He brought out high pressure water hoses.  The hoses were aimed for the head and could peel bark off trees and separate bricks from mortar.  The student’s clothing was torn off and they rolled down the street from the hose pressure. Attack dogs were brought out. Bystanders began to throw rocks and bottles at police/firemen.  The march leaders tried to stop the attacks on the police to no avail. Many were arrested, jails were overloaded so the students were sent elsewhere. The city raised bail from $300 to $200. (Bob Krajewski)   At the end of the day only ten kids were still standing and they were singing “Freedom, Freedom, Freedom.”  The water pressure from the hoses was so strong four men couldn’t hold it steady.

On the third day every child was interrogated.  But each morning new demonstrators left their homes carrying tooth brushes ready to go to jail.

Eight hundred teens were kept in the hog pens at the fairgrounds.  It rained.  The cops watching them sat in cars to keep dry.  Parents threw food and blankets over the fence to their children.

It seemed there was no end in sight because the kids kept coming. 3000 students participated and eventually they broke the back of Birmingham.

I had a personal experience on the way to Birmingham today.  We stopped for lunch in Anniston, Alabama.  It was the site of violence in 1961 when the freedom riders went through town.  I think of it as a very scary place.  I got off the bus with another white woman and two black women and we went to a Waffle Shop for lunch.  Just as we opened the door to enter I knew we wouldn’t be served.  It only lasted a moment, but it shocked me and I stopped – only to be pulled through the door at which time I noticed several women behind the counter, one of them black.

We visited the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute We weren’t allowed to take pictures inside, which is very unfortunate.  However, you can learn a lot from the website.  This is not my parents’ museum.  The exhibits seem alive in sound, sight and emotional involvement.

My sponsors:

Marilyn and Glenn Pribus

Alicia Peck

Josh Rossol

Steve and Marcia Kent

Coretta Simmons

Smokey Hill Books


On the bus:

Birmingham Civil Rights Institute

Rev. Shuttlesworth

16th Street Baptist Church

Kelly Ingram Park – Letter from Birming Jail sculpture

Kelly Ingram Park – Children’s March Sculpture

Kelly Ingram Park

Kelly Ingram Park

4th Avenue Business District

4th Avenue Business District

Edward. LaLa, Tim and EJ.



J, Edward and Tabitha with the Temptations

Jenafer with the Temps



2 responses to “Into the Valley of Death: Atlanta to Birmingham

  1. Sounds all too complicated, as change and revolutions are. Perhaps you could just give us some soundbites of how the trip is going, what you are seeing, meeting and exploring. What are you learning as of today that we can keep or pass on?why should more people make the trip? the benefits?Miss you…..luv, betts

  2. As you visit places where the struggle to make voting a right for all people was fought, the Republicans are trying to make it harder for voters to vote according to an Editorial in the NYT.These are quotes from the June 6, 2011 Editorial of New York Times"One of the most promising recent trends in expanding political participation has been allowing people to vote in the weeks before Election Day, either in person or by mail. Early voting, which enables people to skip long lines and vote at more convenient times, has been increasingly popular over the last 15 years. It skyrocketed to a third of the vote in 2008, rising particularly in the South and among black voters supporting Barack Obama.And that, of course, is why Republican lawmakers in the South are trying desperately to cut it back.""Florida also eliminated the Sunday before Election Day as an early-voting day; election experts note that will eliminate the practice of many African-Americans of voting directly after going to church."

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