By DENNIS PILLION, Al.com
BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (AP) — The Rev. Gwendolyn Webb was just 14 when she led a group of classmates out of a window of a high school to join the civil rights marches in downtown Birmingham in 1963.
The doors had been chained shut to keep students from leaving to join the demonstrations, but Webb and her classmates wouldn’t be deterred. She’d attended training sessions with civil rights leader James Bevel and heard the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. preach from the pulpit of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church on the necessity of non-violent resistance.
She was ready. So she hopped out a window and walked the five miles or so from Western-Olin High School to downtown, gathering followers along the way.
“The more we walked, the more children that came along with us,” Webb said. “It was like formulating an army and by the time we got to Sixteenth Street Baptist Church, I’ve never seen so many children.”
Several thousand students participated in the famed Children’s Crusade, which began on May 2, 1963 and lasted almost a week. The marchers were intercepted by Birmingham police and fire crews, which jailed young people by the hundreds, then used fire hoses and police dogs to disperse the crowds.
Webb was there, and she felt the needle stings of fire hoses on her skin during the march and had a paddy wagon door slam shut on her leg, leaving a mark that remains to this day. She calls it her battle scar. The paddy wagon took her to the state fairgrounds, which police converted to a makeshift jail to handle the thousands of people arrested during the demonstrations. Webb was held at the fairgrounds for seven days.
This weekend, on the 55th anniversary of those marches, Webb and dozens of others who experienced those times firsthand, are joining hundreds of children from Birmingham and across the nation to commemorate the events of 1963.
There are two separate events planned in and around Kelly Ingram Park and the 16th Street Baptist Church, one organized by the national group Jack and Jill of America, Inc., and one organized locally by the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute.
The original “foot soldiers,” participants of the original marches, will have prominent roles in both events.
The Jack and Jill event is a three-day program called “The Power of Children: Then and Now,” which takes place at the Birmingham Jefferson Convention Complex and 16th Street Baptist with a commemorative march at 2 p.m. on Saturday.
“When you think about the pivotal role that children played, not just in civil rights history but in U.S. history in Birmingham, and it is critically important that our young people know that,” Jack and Jill President Joli Cooper-Nelson said. “So this weekend is about educating, honoring, remembering, inspiring, and celebrating.”
Jack and Jill is expecting up to 2,000 of its members and their families to participate in the workshop, most of them traveling from outside Alabama.
“The fascinating part about that is so many have never been to the deep South before,” said Cooper-Nelson, who grew up in Mobile. “And so it’s going to be fascinating for them to see, touch and feel what another part of the country is like.
King’s son, Martin Luther King III, is expected to participate, along with Yolanda Renee King, the civil rights leader’s 9-year-old granddaughter.
Anyone can participate in the march, Cooper-Nelson said, but the rest of the Jack and Jill events required pre-booking, including a session Friday night featuring first-hand accounts from original participants. Part of Saturday’s program — featuring a keynote address by Marian Wright Edelman, founder of the Children’s Defense Fund — will be streamed live on the group’s Facebook page.
Students participating in the re-enactment will be given marching instructions, just as the children were in 1963, stressing the importance of non-violent, civil resistance.
Then at noon, the marchers will be sent in groups of 50 toward Kelly Ingram Park. The original marchers were sent in groups of 50 to hide the true size of the protest and to confuse police as to their intentions.
Those events are free and open to the public, Taylor said, adding that the civil rights museum plans to make commemoration of the Children’s Crusade an annual event.
“We have determined based on the response we’re getting that this will be the first of many annual commemorations of the children’s march,” Taylor said. “Because I can assure you that five years from now, 10 years from now, 25 years from now, even half a century from now, there will be issues of concern in the moment that young people want to engage with and can be change agents about.”