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Children's Crusade (1963) facts for kids

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Children's Crusade
Part of the Birmingham campaign
in the Civil Rights Movement
Date May 2–3, 1963
Parties to the civil conflict
  • City Commission of Birmingham
    • Birmingham Police Department
    • Birmingham Fire Department
Lead figures
SCLC member
Commissioner of Public Safety

The Children's Crusade, or Children's March, was a march by over 5,000 school students in Birmingham, Alabama on May 2–3, 1963. Initiated and organized by Rev. James Bevel, the purpose of the march was to walk downtown to talk to the mayor about segregation in their city. Many children left their schools and were arrested, set free, and then arrested again the next day. The marches were stopped by the head of police, Bull Connor. This event compelled President John F. Kennedy to publicly support federal civil rights legislation and eventually led to the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

Malcolm X was opposed to the event because he thought it would expose the children to violence.

James L. Bevel: King's right hand man

King’s head advisor for the Children’s Crusade was Reverend James L. Bevel. Bevel, a Navy veteran who became a minister from Itta Bena, Mississippi, found deep roots in Old Testament prophets and often wore a Jewish skullcap. After attending a seminar led by James Lawson, a fierce pacifist who firmly believed in training students in “the struggle of racial injustice,” Bevel saw the distinction between white oppression and blacks “accepting the status quo.”

Approaching the Birmingham Children’s Crusade with this background, Bevel spoke to the young students at Saturday nonviolent training sessions, “You are responsible for segregation, you and your parents because you have not stood up… no one has the power to oppress you if you don’t cooperate. So, if you say you are oppressed, then you are… in league with the oppressor; now, it’s your responsibility to break the league with him”. The power of introducing youth into the Civil Rights Movement became a turning point and showed the vast expanse of racism and systemic segregation that had become entrenched in the culture.

Involving children

Among the black community, involving children in the front lines of the national Civil Rights Movement raised a controversial topic. As most parents intend to do, African American parents, particularly in the South, were very protective of their children and had to educate them on the realities of racism from an early age. Thus, allowing their children to be in the front lines of the Birmingham Children’s Crusade was certainly a barrier for young people to overcome. Despite this familial challenge, thousands turned out over the next week in protest.

Day 1: "D-Day"

Day 1 of the march was May 2, 1963. Bevel dubbed it “D-Day,” a direct reference to the Normandy Invasion that led to the Allied victory in World War II. The morning of the movement, some children went directly to the 16th Street Baptist Church located in downtown Birmingham, but many went to school and later in the morning walked out of class; thus making more of a point in their protest.  Eventually almost a thousand school children, ages six to eighteen, congregated in Kelly Ingram Park, 16th Street Baptist Church, and Metropolitan AME Zion Church to begin their march to city hall. The youth were organized into groups and as each group was confronted with barricades and policemen, and subsequently arrested, another “platoon” would emerge from the church. This phenomenon of the seemingly countless droves of students exiting the church puzzled an officer who asked how many more children were in the church and upon hearing, “at least a thousand,” uttered, “God A’mighty.” By the end of the first day, over 900 students had been arrested, and parents were discouraged from paying bail. As stated in OAH Magazine of History, “King was criticized for using children in the demonstrations. One of the most vocal criticisms came from Malcolm X who stated, ‘Real men don't put their children on the firing line.’ King responded by saying that the demonstrations allowed children to develop “a sense of their own stake in freedom and justice”. Also, not coincidentally, the 16th Street Baptist Church was the church that was bombed on September 15, 1963, just four months later.

Day 2: "Double D-Day"

Day 2: “Double D-Day.” Bull Connor authorized the use of high power fire hoses and attack dogs on the children as they again flooded the streets of downtown Birmingham. The fire hoses tore through the ranks of peaceful protesters, and the attack dogs dispersed the organized groups into a frenzied crowd. At one point during the afternoon, Connor locked the remaining 500-1000 marchers inside the 16th Street Baptist Church, mostly due to the fact that he was running out of space in the jail; precisely the goal of King and Bevel. Eventually, organizers ordered everyone to go home, and an additional 500-800 students were jailed.

“Double D-Day” is said to be the event that no other effort could do, and that unites black Birmingham to raise their voice in protest of the systemic and oppressive segregation enforced upon them by the white supremacy. King’s words to worried parents summed up the overall attitude of the protesters and the seriousness in which they took their task. “Your daughters and sons are in jail… don’t worry about them. They are suffering for what they believe, and they are suffering to make this nation a better nation”.


On May 10, 1963, the protesters and the Birmingham city officials reached a settlement that desegregated all public facilities in Birmingham. This march of thousands of elementary, middle, and high school students was one of the largest nationwide, ultimately leading to the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom in August in 1963 .

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