Every day, I pick my wife up when she gets off work. While I am waiting for her to come out, a school bus pulls up across the street, and children get off the bus. By the sizes of the children, I can tell that they are coming from an elementary school. Last off the bus, every day, are two tall boys. By their height, I guess that they must be fifth or sixth graders.
While the other children walk off, these two linger at the bus stop. They talk. They laugh. They punch each other on the biceps. Sometimes they throw snow at one another. Then they give each other an elaborate handshake that starts with a handshake, goes through three or four complicated movements, and ends with a thumbs up.
After this, one walks west and the other walks south.
My guess is that they are best friends.
When Martin Luther King, Jr., was about eight years old, he also had a best friend, and they played together every day. One day, he went to his friend’s house, and knocked at the door. His friend’s mother answered the door, but she wasn’t smiling. Martin, or M.J. as he was called when he was young, asked if his friend could come out and play.
His friend’s mother told him he could never play with her son again. They were too big now. Her son was white, and he was “colored.”
M.J. went home to his own mother and asked her, “Why?”
His mother took him on her knee and explained to him about slavery, and how African Americans had been owned by white people, bought and sold like a dog or a horse or a pig. Then there had been the Civil War, and President Lincoln had freed the slaves. After the Civil War was over, the white people in the south had started something called segregation.
Segregation meant that African Americans and whites were treated differently. They had separate restrooms, drinking fountains, restaurants, schools–just about everything. The facilities for African Americans were never as nice as those for the white people.
She ended by telling M.J. that he was to always remember that he was just as good as anyone.
M.J. went away from that talk, and he thought to himself, “When I get big, I’m going to do something about this.”
M.J. grew up to be the Reverend Doctor Martin Luther King, Junior, and what he called the “zeitgeist,” or the spirit of the times, had made him leader of the civil rights movement.
Civil rights are a person’s rights outside the legal system, the rights to be treated like anyone else.
African Americans in the south did not have these rights. If they went out to eat, they aate separately from whites. One restaurant had a sign, “Colored Dining Room” on its outhouse. African Americans had to sit in the back of the bus and give up their seat if a white person asked for it. Their schools were inferior, and if they attended the same school as whites, they had to sit in the back of the room and were given lower grades. They were not allowed to play on the same part of the playground during recess. Voter registration was manipulated to deny as many African Americans as possible the right to vote.
Dr. King led this movement with non violent rallies, protests, and demonstrations. Even when his house was bombed while he was speaking at a rally, he refused to allow his followers to respond with violence.
After seeing that his family was all right, he went onto what remained of his front porch and spoke to his followers, some of whom had armed themselves.
He said, “Don’t get panicky. Don’t do anything panicky. Don’t get your weapons. If you have weapons, take them home. He who lives by the sword will perish by the sword. Remember that is what Jesus said. We are not advocating violence. We want to love our enemies. I want you to love our enemies. Be good to them. This is what we must live by. We must meet hate with love.” (1)
In 1963, Dr. King was asked by the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and the Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights to go to Birmingham, Alabama.
Birmingham was the most segregated city in the United States. African Americans could not attend the same schools as whites. They were not allowed in the amusement parks. They could not try on clothes before buying them, and could not return them if they did not fit. They were not allowed to swim in the same swimming pools as whites.
When Dr. King arrived, he planned a peaceful march to city hall and the mayor’s office, where a petition would be given to the mayor to change these unfair laws. But he found that he could not find any adults willing to march. They were afraid of “Bull” Connor, the Birmingham Police Chief, who had big, mean German shepherds trained to attack and bite. He had the fire department with fire houses that had water pressure so high that it ripped the bark off trees, and, aimed at humans, could rip the clothing from their bodies and slam them into walls so hard it would break bones and knock them out. He had policemen with guns that fired rubber bullets. Only a few adults were willing to risk these dangers.
Dr. King called a meeting to try to recruit more people for a peaceful march. At the meeting, he asked who was willing to march with him the next day, and hundreds of people stood up. But there was a problem. Almost all of them were children.
Most of the other leaders thought the children were too young to be exposed to such dangers. At first, Dr. King agreed with them.
Everyone nodded, except Jim Bevel. “Wait a minute,” said Jim. “If they want to do it, I say bring on the children.”
“But they are too young!” the others said. Then Jim asked, “Are they too young to go to segregated schools?”
“Are they too young to be kept out of amusement parks?”
“Are they too young to be refused a hamburger in a restaurant?”
“No!” said the others.
“Then they are not too young to want their freedom.” That night, they decided that any child old enough to join a church was old enough to march. (2)
The next day, hundreds of children skipped school to march on the courthouse. But they were arrested. School buses took them to jail. 1200 children were arrested that first day. The youngest was eight years old. As the buses carted them off to jail, they sang, “We shall overcome.” (3)
That was May 2, 1963. The same thing happened on May 3 and May 4. On May 5, there was no more room in the jail, and the children assembled on the street to march to the courthouse.
As they neared the courthouse, Bull Connor and his forces were waiting.
“Turn loose your dogs!” snarled Bull Connor. But the policeman kept their dogs on their leashes.
“Turn on the fire hoses!” growled Bull Connor. But the firemen turned away. Some of them were crying.
“Let ‘em have it” yelled Bull Connor, but the policemen with the rubber bullets wouldn’t fire on the children.
And the children marched through. They came to the courthouse steps. They knelt. They prayed.
And the eyes of the world were on Birmingham. Television cameras had filmed the entire thing, and people everywhere were outraged. Many white people in Birmingham had not been supporters of segregation, but had not wanted to get involved. Now they became involved. Business people complained to the city council that they were losing business because people were afraid to come downtown to shop.
Complaints came from all over the world to President Kennedy in Washington, D.C., resulting in a Federal investigation and Fedral intervention. The laws were changed, and Bull Connor lost his job.
In 1964, the Congress of the United States passed the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which “ended unequal application of voter registration requirements and racial segregation in schools, at the workplace and by facilities that served the general public (‘public accommodations’).” (4)
Remember the two boys at the bus stop I mentioned at the beginning of this blog? The thing that thrills me about them is that one of them is white, and the other one is African American. And I bet that they never give a thought that because of their races, someone might have told them they could not be friends, or that they might not have gone to the same school, or been allowed to sit together on the bus. They’re just friends, and that’s the way it should be.
Let’s pray. Lord, inspire us to be like Martin Luther King, Junior, who saw something wrong and worked to change it. And let us be as brave as the Birmingham School Children, who dared to risk their safety to change some unjust laws. Through Christ our Lord. Amen
(1) This quote is found in many places. Here’s one of them: http://articles.dailypress.com/2006-01-15/news/0601120444_1_constitution-white-men-love-affair/2
(2) The Children’s Crusade by Kate Rhode, in What if Nobody Forgave? and Other Stories, edited by Colleen McDonald (Boston: Skinner House, 2003). Quoted IN http://www.uua.org/re/tapestry/children/windows/session6/sessionplan/stories/143572.shtml
Note: The portion of this blog dealing with the Children’s Crusade was delivered as the Children’s Sermon at Elim Lutheran Church in Ogden, Utah, on January 20, 2013.