“Who forced you to march?”
Audrey, a third-grader at Birmingham’s all-black Center Elementary School, sat on a straight-backed chair in a vast and otherwise empty room in Juvenile Detention. Dressed in a pinafore and Mary Janes with turned-down socks, she looked across a broad conference table at five big scary white men. She wondered if they planned to kill her.
“Nobody forced me,” she answered.
“Are you sure?”
“Yes, sir. I decided myself.”
“I want my freedom. I want to be able to go places and do things like anybody else.”
“Are you against America?”
This slightly truncated quotation is an account of one black child’s experience during the civil rights era. It comes from my debut nonfiction book, WE HAVE A JOB: THE 1963 BIRMINGHAM CHILDREN’S MARCH (Peachtree, February 2012).
On May 2, 1963, Audrey Faye Hendricks, then nine years old, tried to march with several hundred other black kids (all older than she was) from a church in downtown Birmingham, Alabama, to City Hall. She was arrested less than two blocks from the church and spent a week in jail. During that week, a matron threatened her with solitary (she was playing a board game she’d carried with her and didn’t hear the matron tell her to sit down) and was interrogated.
Audrey shared this story with a civil rights historian, who interviewed her in 1995 at the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute, a museum/educational center/archives built across the street from the historic church. I read her interview online, and, during one of my three research trips to Birmingham, I had the honor of talking with Audrey at her home.
Above all, I needed to know what she was protesting about. How could a nine-year-old’s life be so hard that she’d go to jail to change it?
For the purposes of today’s post—Independence Day, 2011—Audrey’s understanding of freedom is particularly apt. Her response, “I want to be able to go places and do things like anybody else,” is both charmingly simple and rousingly universal, the nugget and the epitome of what it means to be free.
She and three other black children—James, Arnetta, and Wash—are the focus of my book. They tell the story of how they and about 3,000 other high school and elementary school kids desegregated what some people considered the most racially violent city in the South. For me, learning what it meant for them NOT to be free, during the years before they won the battle, was like journeying into a foreign country—a country separated by geography, by time, and by myself.
I grew up, white and Jewish, in Columbus, Ohio, and was a high-school senior in 1963. Housing and schools in Columbus were de facto segregated. I didn’t know any black people, except our maid, Betty. Theoretically, however, we could all go to the same restaurants and movie theaters. If we did, which I don’t recall, I probably gaped but, at least, I didn’t have to worry that, if a black family also decided to have dinner at Marzetti’s, they’d be arrested before being served their salads.
What I learned about civil rights mostly came through reading newspapers, watching Huntley-Brinkley, and singing “freedom songs” along with Joan Baez LPs—not through living it, the way Audrey, James, Arnetta, and Wash did. So, my first explorations into Birmingham circa 1963 entailed learning the facts of segregation, which were extreme and incontrovertible.
Birmingham’s Segregation Ordinances, adopted and expanded in the early 1940s, made it “unlawful to conduct a restaurant or other place for the serving of food in the city, at which white and colored people are served in the same room, unless such white and colored persons are effectively separated by a solid partition extending from the floor upward to a distance of seven feet or higher, and unless a separate entrance from the street is provided for each compartment.”
And, this was, literally, just the beginning of legally mandated “Separation of the Races.” Anyone—white or black—who played ball or went to a party or a meeting with someone of the other race or who sat in the wrong bus station waiting room or used the wrong “toilet facilities” could be prosecuted.
Reading these stipulations was one thing. Absorbing what it meant to live under the virtual apartheid that defined the place was another. Anyone—white or black—who so much as questioned the sanity or justice of these regulations invited brutal retribution by the Ku Klux Klan. Many recordings of interviews I conducted contain silences while I sat speechless, shaking my head, after listening to the stories both black and white Birminghamians told me about the facts of their utterly divided lives. Two women—one white, one black—told me that desegregation, when it finally, slowly began to take root during the summer of 1963, thanks to the children who marched and went to jail, liberated everyone.
Freedom—invoked in civil rights songs and on picket signs—had seemed a vague, undefined concept until I delved into and came to understand its complete absence. Given the extremes in Birmingham prior to 1963, freedom there had concrete definitions: eating lunch while sitting at the counter rather than standing outside; getting hired as a clerk, not just a janitor, in downtown department stores. (It also retained concrete limitations: schools remained segregated as did parks and the police department, among other services, for many years.)
Except in places of extremes (I’ve also written for kids about Rwanda, for instance), “freedom” seems to me to be a mixture of the specific and the relative. As such, it is ever-elusive, ever-reconfigured, ever-threatened.
Researching this book has led me to consider my own past, my assumptions, my prejudices, and my ignorances. I have come to wonder what lacks of freedom I am ignoring in the world today, just as other white people did, some under duress and others by preference, in Birmingham almost 50 years ago. They’re out there, possibly less stark, less literally black and white, than during the civil rights period. They’re also inside, I realize.