Bull Connor spat in my teenage face: The civil rights march that changed me forever

I was only in high school, but knew I had to do the Children's Crusade with Dr. King, even if it meant jail

Published January 18, 2016 12:30AM (EST)

  (AP/Photo montage by Salon)
(AP/Photo montage by Salon)

Excerpted from "Holding Fast to Dreams: Empowering Youth From the Civil Rights Crusade to STEM Achievement"

I am convinced that our early experiences—from school, to church, to piano lessons, to shopping downtown—shape the way we think about the world and lay the emotional groundwork for decisions we will make later in life. Much of my philosophy about educating students and supporting children was shaped by the messages I received and the experiences I had growing up in Birmingham at the height of the civil rights movement. The messages and experiences were conflicting, but as I witnessed and participated in events that sought to resolve these conflicts, I learned that a higher purpose, clear goals, and determination could make a difference.

My students often ask me, “Doc, what was it like to be twelve and black in Birmingham?” I tell them that I was privileged to be born into a middle-class African American family with educated parents who provided me with strong positive messages. In the close-knit community in which we lived, everybody was my parent, and teachers gave us the best they could. It was a community that shared an understanding of the importance of education, strong faith, the arts, and reading, and of values such as hard work, integrity, and respect for others. The church was at the center of our lives. Adults looked after other children as they did their own, teaching us to be accountable and respectful. Within the sphere of this community, children were protected and made to feel special. We children were surrounded by leaders, both from within our community and beyond it, who used their language skills to shape a vision of the future. They encouraged people to believe that the world could be better than it was and that all people—including children—could be empowered to change their circumstances.

As black children living in the segregated South, however, we were subjected to another, harsher set of messages that told us we were second-class. I first became aware of these messages in 1955, when Rosa Parks was arrested for refusing a bus driver’s demand that she give up her seat to a white person. I was five years old. I received the message again in second grade when the teacher handed out books with brown paper concealing the covers. Our teacher told us not to remove the paper cover but, overtaken by curiosity, I peeled it back and discovered the name of a white school underneath. I went to her and asked, “Why do they give us their books when they throw them away?” The first thing she said was, “Boy, I told you not to peel that paper off that book.” Then she was embarrassed. She looked at me and said, “Yes, the book is second-rate, but you are a child of God. You’re first-rate. Get the knowledge. You don’t have time to be a victim.” At home, I could see the pain in my parents’ faces when I told them what had happened. Their message, however, was the same as my teacher’s. “You have to get over it,” they said. Focus on the things you can change. The messages we received from outside our community were increasingly painful as the years went on, but they taught important lessons about resilience and the value of hard work.

Segregated Birmingham told us quite clearly that we were not as good as the other children, that we were not as smart, that we did not deserve to go to the better resourced schools. Throughout my childhood, we would go downtown, but we never saw a person of color in any position of power, not even operating a cash register. The fact that no salesperson, no fireman, no policeman, no one of authority in downtown Birmingham was of color sent strong messages to black children like me. There was a local amusement park, Kiddie Land, but we were not allowed to go there because it was for whites only. When we went to the movies, we had to sit in the balcony. At restaurants, we had to sit in certain areas or take our meals with us. In stores, we could be served but only after all of the whites in line had been. We went to separate schools that lacked the resources of white schools. It was devastating.

The same mixed messages came to us over the airwaves as well. One of the only television shows about people of color at the time was the Amos ’n Andy Show. As offensive as it was in many ways, we were proud to see black people on TV. Today, I am shocked by what I see when I watch that show, but that was our show— quite frankly, it’s hard to explain to someone who was not there. The first regular television show that I remember as a source of real pride was Julia in the late 1960s. Julia was about an attractive, polished black nurse—played by Diahann Carroll—and her son, and it was the first time I’d ever seen a person of color portrayed with dignity on television.

Television also brought us real-life news of experiences of blacks. During that same period, the University of Alabama was under court order to open its doors to people who looked like me, with three top students from our schools—James Hood, Vivian Malone Jones, and Dave McGlathery—matriculating there for the first time. We were all so excited to watch this on television, and then we saw all these white citizens—churchgoers, I’m sure— angrily protesting the admission of blacks to the university. Soon afterwards, the governor of Alabama, George Wallace, appeared on national television, symbolically blocking the doorway of a University of Alabama auditorium to prevent the first black students from registering for classes. Under federal protection, the students registered at the university later in the day, but I remember watching the news and feeling really bad that people did not want these black students at the university. I will never forget how saddened we were to be given the message yet again that we were considered second-class.

Yet the message my friends and I kept hearing from our parents, neighbors, and teachers was that we didn’t have time to be victims. “You are special,” they would say. “You have to be twice as good, but if you get the knowledge, you can shape your future. Remember that you are not in this just for yourself but to change things for everyone.”

These were consistent and persistent messages and ones that I later incorporated into my work: people have a right to an education, and our students must be educated to become leaders, solve problems, and create better lives for others.

The Children’s Crusade

From the 1930s to the 1950s, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAA CP) developed and implemented a successful strategy designed to challenge the legal basis for segregation of the races in the United States. Led by Charles Houston, the NAA CP legal team initiated a series of lawsuits that undermined and eventually overturned the doctrine of “separate but equal” that the Supreme Court had used to uphold segregation in its 1896 Plessy v. Ferguson decision. In their first case, Murray v. Pearson (1935), Houston and Thurgood Marshall chipped away at separate but equal by successfully arguing in Maryland courts for the admission of a black man to the University of Maryland School of Law, on the ground that the state of Maryland had no separate law school for blacks. They continued by taking further cases through the legal system all the way to the Supreme Court, with more decisions that undermined the legal rationale for segregation. In deciding Sweatt v. Painter (1950) and McLaurin v. Oklahoma State Regents (1950), for example, the Supreme Court did not overturn Plessy outright but did rule that separate but equal in education had to be equal in fact or it was unconstitutional. Four years later, presenting evidence that segregated schools inflicted harm on black students, the NAA CP legal team, now led by Marshall, persuaded the court to finally overturn Plessy, and the separate-but-equal doctrine, in Brown v. Board of Education (1954). Earl Warren, speaking for the court, said, “We conclude, unanimously, that in the field of public education the doctrine of ‘separate but equal’ has no place. Separate educational facilities are inherently unequal.”

Following the Brown decision, the modern civil rights movement emerged to ensure that desegregation became a reality. It was still struggling a decade later in the early 1960s, however, to integrate public facilities and schools and ensure the rights of blacks as citizens, as many whites across the South actively resisted desegregation efforts. There was progress, to be sure. The Montgomery bus boycott of 1955–56 that followed Rosa Parks’s courageous act of civil disobedience led to the desegregation of buses in that city. The student sit-in at a segregated lunch counter in Greensboro, North Carolina, in 1960 succeeded in integrating that establishment and inspiring many other students to use sit-ins across the South to win desegregation of more businesses and facilities. Though it required federal troops in each instance, black students were admitted to Little Rock High School in Arkansas in 1957 and to the University of Mississippi in 1962. Despite these gains, there were also many cities and states that continued to uphold segregation and deny voter rights. And there were many segregationists who were willing to use violence to maintain the status quo. Freedom Riders who challenged segregation in interstate transportation (buses and trains), for example, were violently attacked, and several buses set on fire.

Progress toward ending segregation was uncertain and contested, resulting in occasional setbacks. In 1962 Dr. King and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) joined the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and others in an effort to broadly desegregate Albany, Georgia, through nonviolent marches and other tactics. After months of protests, however, little had been accomplished. The goals of the movement were too broad, protest marches had little leverage over local white elected officials who did not need black votes, and those same officials who had agreed with Dr. King to negotiate with local blacks reneged on their promises once King left town. In addition, a federal judge granted local officials an injunction to block further civil rights marches, leaving Dr. King and the civil rights leadership who had joined the movement there with what seemed an insurmountable roadblock. The quandary was this: for King and his colleagues, protest marches were their prime tactic in Albany, and giving them up would significantly reduce their ability to apply any pressure on the establishment that supported segregation; at the same time, defying the federal court injunction, which they believed rested on shaky legal ground, would have appeared to contradict their purpose, which was to support and force the implementation in the South of federal court decisions, particularly those requiring desegregation. King and the other leaders learned about the injunction on a Saturday morning, and they decided after much deliberation not to join in a march scheduled for later in the day. The march proceeded without them to little effect, and the SCLC effort in Albany soon faltered. While some have argued that Albany was a limited success (civil rights activists learned much about goals and tactics, and Albany did desegregate a year later), King and his SCLC colleagues left the city dejected and pondering how they might proceed differently in the future.

In 1963 the SCLC leadership agreed to focus their efforts on Birmingham, Alabama, my hometown. The Reverend Fred Shuttlesworth, director of the Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights (ACMHR) and one of the founders of the SCLC, had been working to end segregation and promote civil rights in Birmingham since the mid-1950s, often against violent opposition. His own home, adjacent to the Bethel Baptist Church, had been bombed in 1956. The next year, 1957, a white mob violently attacked him and his wife when they tried to register their children at all-white Phillips High School in Birmingham. In early 1963, when I was twelve, Shuttlesworth persuaded his SCLC colleagues that their next target should be Birmingham, because it represented segregation at its most intractable and could be used as a platform to raise national consciousness about the struggle for civil rights.

Determined to bounce back from Albany, the SCLC leadership adopted a new, more targeted and assertive strategy for challenging segregation in Birmingham, which they eventually called Project C (the C stood for confrontation). As Taylor Branch relates in Parting the Waters, the plan of action was initially conceived as involving four stages: “First, they would launch small-scale sit-ins to draw attention to their desegregation platform, while building strength through nightly mass meetings.

Second, they would organize a generalized boycott of the downtown business section and move to slightly larger demonstrations. Third, they would move up to mass marches both to enforce the boycott and to fill the jails. Finally, if necessary, they would call on outsiders to descend on Birmingham from across the country . . . to cripple the city under the combined pressure of publicity, economic boycott, and the burden of overflowing jails.” While there has been scholarly discussion as to whether plans for Birmingham were actually this well thought out ahead of time, and the historical record shows that the SCLC leadership changed plans and tactics in the spring of 1963 as the political situation and protests in Birmingham evolved, the essential thrust of the campaign in Birmingham as it played out would be an economic boycott, complemented by sit-ins and protest marches. The latter eventually became the main show, escalating into a critical mass march called the Children’s Crusade.

The SCLC leadership hoped that these actions would force the city and its business community to reassess the costs of segregation. As the black community in Birmingham had much more economic power than in Albany, Georgia, the SCLC had determined that the boycott strategy would hit the business community hard. As Martin Luther King argued, “The Negro has enough buying power in Birmingham to make a difference between profit and loss in any business. This was not true in Albany.” The SCLC also bet, as Diane McWhorter has put it, that “huge, jail-filling, history-making demonstrations, during the symbolically freighted Easter season” would produce a concrete victory in Birmingham. Indeed, the decision to focus on Birmingham would accomplish that and more—it would prove to be a turning point in the civil rights movement and, unbeknownst to me at the time, in my life as well.

As a child I had become painfully aware that while downtown stores in Birmingham would sell to my family and other blacks, those stores had segregated and inferior facilities for us—fitting rooms, restrooms, drinking fountains, and lunch counters. Moreover, we saw no people of color holding any positions other than janitors and maids; all of the positions from sales clerk to manager were reserved for whites. Given this treatment, the black community in Birmingham did respond to SCLC’s call to boycott downtown stores. Indeed, I will never forget how depressed my friends and I were that Easter Sunday morning. Traditionally, the Easter season was the time when you could shop and get new clothes. But my parents supported the boycott, and it was a very powerful opportunity for children to understand important lessons regarding right and wrong, the power of community resolve behind a common goal, and the virtue of peaceful protest. So we kids did not get our new outfits and shoes. More than anything, we learned that sometimes, in order to achieve a long-term goal, you must sacrifice something that seems important in the short term. For us children, that lesson would very soon be put to a much more challenging test.

During April, while the boycott continued, hundreds of people were arrested in Birmingham as they participated in sit-ins and protests. As in Albany, city officials in Birmingham asked the courts for an injunction against protests and one was granted. In this case, however, after discussion and prayer, Dr. King decided to continue to protest in defiance of the injunction, which, fortuitously, had been issued by a segregationist state court and not a federal court as had been the case in Albany. On Good Friday, April 12, Dr. King and about forty others marched from the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church along a route lined with supporters. Within several blocks of the church, they and a handful of bystanders were arrested and taken to jail. A group of local white clergy wrote a letter condemning Dr. King as an “outsider” and the marches as “unwise and untimely.” In response, Dr. King wrote the “Letter from Birmingham Jail” that defended nonviolent resistance to racism and argued there was a moral responsibility to defy unjust laws.

Yet despite the continued business boycott and the Good Friday arrests, the number of marchers needed to pressure the white establishment in Birmingham into negotiations had not fully materialized in April. Indeed, organizers became concerned late that month that what pressure they had brought to bear was dissipating. SCLC leader James Bevel then suggested that, in order to sustain momentum, the group should call on the city’s children to join the marches. Bevel noted that many adults feared losing jobs or mortgages if they joined in the protests, and so stayed home. He argued that the city’s children, by contrast, were less worried about such concerns and might be recruited to keep the marches going. Moreover, as Juan Williams relates in Eyes on the Prize, Bevel told King that “the sight of young children being hauled off to jail would dramatically stir the nation’s conscience.”

It was at this time that my parents brought me to church in the middle of the week for a mass meeting on the civil rights demonstrations now under way in Birmingham. I had not wanted to come along and did not want to be there. My parents placated me by allowing me to do my math homework in the back of the room, where I sang along, ate M&Ms, and worked on my algebra problems. I tried to ignore the speeches from the front of the church, but at one point one of the speakers caught my attention and held it. We were accustomed at our church to impressive speakers, but this man combined polish with a message I could not ignore. We knew that blacks were not treated fairly by those in power, but we tended to think, “This is the way of the world.” In contrast, this man was saying that the world could change and that even the children could have an impact on what might happen to us in the future. In fact, he was saying that our actions were needed and mattered. I was impressed. I asked my parents, “Who is that man?” It was the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

It can be transformational for anyone—and especially for a child—to come to the belief that the world can be a different place from what it is right now, that the future is not decided. Many slaves may have had this experience when they heard Harriet Tubman say, “There is a railroad here. There is a way to freedom.” Your dreams change, your possibilities change, your goals change.

When we arrived home after that meeting, I said, “I must go. I must go.” And my parents said, “Absolutely not. You cannot go.” I was stunned. “The minister that you made me come and listen to told me what I need to do, and we all gave him a standing ovation. Now we get home and I say I want to do what he says, and you tell me I can’t?” Now, at that time you did not talk back to your parents. Yet I said, “You know, you guys are really hypocrites.” The air was just sucked out of the room. My mother gasped, and my dad simply said, “Boy, go to your room.” I was convinced I was going to be punished.

But they did not come into my room that night. They came in early the next morning and sat on both sides of my bed. I was frightened, seeing that they had both been crying—I had almost never seen my parents cry. They said, “It was not because of a lack of confidence in you that we were saying no, but you are our only son; you are our treasure. We don’t trust the people in those jails. We don’t know what they would do to you. So, don’t think we don’t believe in you. We are worried because we love you.” What they said next was so powerful: “But we have prayed all night, and we are going to put you in God’s hands. If you want to go, you can.”

I did not know as we prepared for the march that teachers had gotten the message from the Board of Education that if their own children went to jail, they would lose their jobs. This had made it even more difficult for my mother. For several reasons, most of the children who joined the march were not from middle-class families. First, many middle-class parents were worried because they had more to lose, and many were not willing to risk jobs, mortgages, and more. Some were not happy with Dr. King. He was rocking the boat. Blacks in Birmingham had a very high rate of homeownership because of the relatively high wages earned by teachers and steelworkers. And when you’ve got something, you worry about losing it. Families and kids in the housing projects may have felt they had less to lose from participating. Second, many of my teachers understandably felt that the role of children was to excel in school, and that participating in demonstrations would take away from school time. Finally, and most important, most did not trust the jail staff with their children.

But I was going to march. At first I was excited, but then I began to think more about what participating in the march would be like, and I got really scared and started to cry. I had done all my big talking, to be sure, and yet I had already heard about the dogs and the fire hoses. I was not a brave child really. If there was a fight, I ran the other way. I was a chubby little math nerd. Give me a math problem to attack and I am fine. But fight another kid? I’m not fighting anybody. Face dogs and fire hoses? Really?

I tell my students that sometimes when people do courageous things, it’s not the result of their being particularly brave. Instead, they are responding to circumstances. I couldn’t turn back. My cousin Paul looked at me and said, “Those dogs are going to bite you.” When my parents asked him, “Well, Paul, aren’t you going with him?” he was very clear that he was not. All that day he kept teasing me. I recognized, however, that he was only joking because he was very worried.

Later that day, my parents dropped me off at the church for the march.

What many people don’t know about the Children’s Crusade is how much preparation we received. First, the organizers met with us and asked us to watch a documentary about student protests in Nashville. Then they trained us to understand strategy and discipline and, quite frankly, the power of music. They knew the police officers were going to try to upset us and that when kids get upset, they can become very irrational and throw rocks or otherwise respond—and if you threw rocks at the police, they had a reason to put the dogs on you. So we were taught how to resist taunting from the police. Similarly, the organizers of the march knew that singing would elevate the experience, allowing us to block out the negativity and forget the fear we were experiencing. I was only twelve at the time but was in the ninth grade, having skipped two years of school, and I was mature for my age, so I was asked to lead a group of children—younger and older than me—within the march. As a group leader, I would help keep the group focused through singing and reminders to stay disciplined.

The Children’s Crusade began on May 2. Almost a thousand students marched on City Hall that day, with more than six hundred arrested. The jails and detention centers were so full that Eugene “Bull” Connor, Birmingham’s commissioner of public safety, attempted to dissuade further marching the next day, May 3, by using police dogs and fire cannons to turn back the children. Having seen this, I knew what we would be facing.

I marched on May 4. We left my church, Sixth Avenue Baptist, where I’d received training, went to Sixteenth Street Baptist, and then walked toward downtown. Though I do not have a great singing voice, I can carry a tune, and I had been taught to lead the other children in song. And so I sang one of the Negro spirituals:

Ain’t going to let nobody, turn me around

Turn me around, turn me around

Ain’t going to let nobody turn me around

Keep on a’ walking. Keep on a’ talking

Marching up to freedom land

What is the most effective way to really upset children? Talking trash about their mothers. As expected, police officers lining the route taunted us and tried to get us to react. We had been trained to ignore their words and to focus on our goal of continuing downtown and kneeling on the steps of City Hall, and so we kept on marching and singing. The police then moved to contain the marchers, their dogs ready to attack. We could feel the tension when someone in the crowd threw a rock or when the dogs or fire hoses were brought near. And yet, because of the music and the discipline, the children continued moving in an orderly way. I was in a small group that broke off from the crowd as many other children were being stopped or detained.

I made it all the way to the steps of City Hall. What was my job when I got there? To kneel, to pray for our freedom, and to tell whoever was there our purpose: freedom to have the basic rights of other American citizens, to get a good education, and to have access to public accommodations, from water fountains and restrooms to restaurants and movie theaters. It was that simple. My students ask me, “Well, Doc, why would they put somebody in jail for that?” The law stated that you needed a permit to hold a protest, even a peaceful one, and the city withheld from Dr. King and the other leaders a permit to peacefully assemble.

I can’t tell you how my knees were shaking as I arrived at the steps of City Hall. And who was there but Bull Connor himself. Connor, a former radio announcer, was in his sixth term as the elected official overseeing the city’s police and fire departments. He was widely known for his aggressive support of the city’s segregation ordinances. He had recently threatened to close and sell off the city’s parks rather than follow a court order to integrate them. An imposing man with a booming voice, he was obviously angry on the day of the march because of the TV cameras. He looked at me and said, “What do you want, little Nigra?” Remember, I was not a courageous kid. I looked up at him, scared, and managed to say, in my Birmingham accent, “Suh, we want to kneel and pray.” He spat in my face. Then my fellow demonstrators and I were gathered up and shoved into a police wagon waiting nearby.

Being in jail was an awful experience, and the guards made every effort to increase our misery. I was with a small group of boys from the march, and they put us in with the “bad boys”— juvenile delinquents who were in jail for real crimes. The guards encouraged these boys to be verbally and physically intimidating and abusive. We could hear kids hollering in other cells. Unspeakable things happened. I felt responsible to look out for the group of kids with me, even though they were not from my neighborhood and I did not know them. Only a couple of years younger than I, they would often cry that they wanted their mothers. I tried to keep them busy playing games. The only book in that place was the Bible—there were Bibles everywhere—so I would read to them. It turned out that one of the bad boys had been a student of my mother, so he gave us some protection. But when others would start coming toward my little group, I would read from scripture and have my kids quote after me, “The Lord is my shepherd. The Lord is my shepherd. I shall not want.” Every time I read from the Bible, the bad boys would retreat: they didn’t want to fight with God. I got that. It protected us.

In the middle of the week, when Dr. King and our parents gathered outside the detention center and held their vigil, we were reminded of our purpose in being there. We were all crying, but Dr. King assured us that our participation in the march, and our going to jail, would help make the world a better place for children not yet born. And though we may not have fully grasped the profound significance of that statement, his words gave us strength and invited us to think about the possibilities.

After five horrible days as encaged human beings, without the freedom to even breathe fresh air, we were released. I was excited to go back to school, Ullman High. I loved studying. I loved mathematics and reading. But my excitement turned to disappointment and anger when we discovered that the Board of Education had ordered the suspension of students who had been arrested for marching.

The way in which Ullman High School’s principal, George Bell, handled our suspensions revealed the leader and role model that he was. In general, assemblies involving the whole school were very rare. However, Mr. Bell called the entire school together after he received word about the board’s decision. It was clear that he did not want to suspend us, but as he had no choice, he decided to treat our suspensions like badges of courage. He used the ceremony reserved for inducting students into the National Honor Society to honor those of us who were now being suspended. A brilliant leader with a commanding voice, he called each of the children who had been in jail to the stage. He spoke to themes from Henry David Thoreau’s work on civil disobedience to describe the importance of what we had accomplished. When he finished, the entire student body gave us a standing ovation. As we served our suspensions, Mr. Bell continued demonstrating what it means to be a leader. He and others worked around the bureaucracy, making sure we got notes from our classes and our homework assignments. He encouraged me to read Thoreau’s “Civil Disobedience.”

Initially, the local federal district court judge upheld the Board of Education action suspending us from school. We were in church that next week when we received the good news that the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals—a court that handed down many decisions supporting civil rights—had reversed that ruling and that we could return to school. In fact, the Court of Appeals—composed of white southerners who nonetheless supported and advanced the civil rights of African Americans—went even further and condemned the board for its action. I will never forget both the tears of joy and spirit of celebration in that church that evening. We had been so afraid that we would not be able to continue our education.

In the meantime, the violent attacks by the city police and firemen on children engaged in peaceful protest had been captured in photographs and on film, and these images filled newspapers and television news for days, deeply affecting national sentiment, particularly in the North. Bull Connor had played the perfect foil, as civil rights leaders had hoped in picking Birmingham as a target in 1963. His tactics had backfired, and the tide soon turned. In June, an association representing most of the downtown stores negotiated an agreement with the SCLC leadership to desegregate within ninety days and to hire blacks in stores as salespeople and clerks.

That same month, on June 11, as the civil rights struggle continued in Alabama and across the South, President John F. Kennedy gave an impassioned and somewhat extemporaneous televised address to the nation advocating passage of civil rights legislation. In the address he said:

One hundred years of delay have passed since President Lincoln freed the slaves, yet their heirs, their grandsons, are not truly free. They are not yet freed from the bonds of injustice. They are not yet freed from social and economic oppression. And this nation, for all its hopes and all its boasts, will not be fully free until all its citizens are free.

We preach freedom around the world and we mean it. And we cherish our freedom here at home. But are we to say to the world—and much more importantly, to each other—that this is the land of the free, except for Negroes, that we have no second-class citizens, except Negroes, that we have no class or caste system, no ghettos, no master race, except with respect to Negroes?

Now, the time has come for this nation to fulfill its promise. The events in Birmingham and elsewhere have so increased the cries for equality that no city or state or legislative body can prudently choose to ignore them.

The fires of frustration and discord are burning in every city, North and South, where legal remedies are not at hand. Redress is sought in the streets, in demonstrations, parades, and protests which create tensions and threaten violence and threaten lives. We face, therefore, a moral crisis as a country and a people. It cannot be met by repressive police action. It cannot be left to increased demonstrations in the streets. It cannot be quieted by token moves or talk. It is time to act in the Congress, in your state and local legislative bodies and, above all, in all of our daily lives.

The experience of marching in the Children’s Crusade in May 1963 taught me that even children can make decisions that have an impact on the rest of their lives, and that they know the difference between right and wrong. It also taught me that children can struggle to overcome challenges and be stronger as a result. When children have support, any struggle, whether it’s standing up for civil rights or learning to read or solving math problems, can teach lessons about the importance of persistence. We all face struggles throughout our lives. What’s important is how we respond. As children confront different problems and learn to handle them, they develop confidence. Success breeds success.

Excerpted from "Holding Fast to Dreams: Empowering Youth From the Civil Rights Crusade to STEM Achievement" by Dr. Freeman A. Hrabowski III (Beacon Press, 2015). Reprinted with permission from Beacon Press. All rights reserved.

By Dr. Freeman A. Hrabowski III

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