Revolution in the Day-to-Day: The Legacy of the 1963 Children’s Crusade
Before they were teachers, soldiers, engineers, lawyers, and government officials, they were the young foot soldiers of Birmingham’s civil rights movement. May 2 marks the 50th anniversary of what protesters code named “D-Day” — the beginning of the Children’s Crusade, in which nearly 1,000 young people descended from the stairs of the 16th Street Baptist Church in peaceful protest and were subsequently arrested, flooding the city’s jails. Their protest and the city’s brutal reaction — turning fire hoses and police dogs on the children — drew national and international attention to Birmingham’s institutionalized racism and the strength of the black community’s commitment to justice.
This year the city government and a number of organizations, including the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) have devoted their efforts to memorializing the events of 1963. On the anniversary of D-Day, the NAACP and SCLC will sponsor a parade reenacting the march, and inviting the movements’ veterans and members of the public to return to the church and collectively remember the activism of the past.
While the Children’s Crusade made Birmingham central to the national debate over civil rights, combatting racism in the city took years of ongoing confrontation. These child crusaders had to work out their claims to equality on a day-to-day basis. As they pursued growing educational and career opportunities, the veterans’ everyday lives as workers and professionals became integral to turning violently segregated “Bombingham” into an integrated Birmingham. What follows are some of the stories of how the ins and outs of life after 1963 helped transform the city.
Telephone installer, computer operator.
For Raymond Goolsby, Sr., James Brown’s popular protest song, “I Don’t Want Nobody To Give Me Nothing,” particularly the lyrics, “Open up the door, I’ll get it myself,” have served as his anthem since the Children’s Crusade.
Goolsby was among the first teenagers out of the church on May 2. That day, he stood near Martin Luther King, Jr. and received instructions about nonviolent conduct and passive resistance. While subsequent groups turned east after leaving the church, Goolsby’s and the students with him went west, diverting the police attention away from the other protestors. “We were decoys,” Goolsby recalled. They made it two blocks before being arrested, and Goolsby spent the next five days in jail.
During the years that followed, Goolsby worked his way through a number of newly opened doors. He started doing facility maintenance at the telephone company, moving up the ranks and becoming Birmingham’s third black telephone installer. When he made switchman, however, he confronted older racist boundaries. While managers gave his white coworkers job-related tasks, they told him to sweep floors. Three months later he was deemed unqualified and fired. Not to be deterred, Goolsby went back to school for data processing, later becoming a computer operator.
For Goolsby, the success of the children’s movement necessitated ongoing hard work. “Anything that is just given, can easily be taken away,” Goolsby said. Now retired, he continues telling young people how Birmingham has changed, emphasizing the necessity of an ongoing commitment to fairness and justice.
Teacher, counselor, principal.
Janice Kelsey saw the struggle over integration unfold amid the bureaucracy of public education in Birmingham. In 1963, she was a classmate of Goolsby’s at Ullman High School. She enthusiastically joined the other children at the church on May 2, despite her parents’ warnings not to get into trouble. She even packed her purse with a toothbrush, toothpaste and soap in preparation for a night in jail — she remained in police custody for four days.
“I was not afraid to go to jail,” she recalled. “I was intimidated by the police officer, with his gun and stick. I had never confronted a white man. Then someone started singing ‘We Are Not Afraid’ — that gave me courage.”
Kelsey always wanted to be a teacher. For her, equality in education was essential to social justice. “That’s been my mantra,” she said, “trying to keep the playing field level.”
When Birmingham’s public schools integrated their faculty, Kelsey was among the first black teachers sent to a white school. “It was not an easy transition,” she said. She remembered the challenges of cross-cultural communication — something in which the teachers received no training. There were also a series of racist misperceptions to confront, like the belief that black students were less capable, which landed a disproportionate number of them in special education.
Kelsey taught for 33 years, and then worked as a school counselor before becoming a principal. While she worked in education amid the struggle for integration, she also began sharing her memories of the movement. In the early-1980s, one of Kelsey’s colleagues asked her to visit a history class and tell her story. “What story?” Kelsey responded. It was the first time it occurred to her that someone would want to know about her experience. She remembered the students’ surprise upon meeting someone who had experienced the civil rights movement first hand. “They were surprised to meet someone who was part of history,” she said.
Soldier, railway worker, accountant.
Clifton Casey felt afraid in 1963. As his classmates at Carver High School left for 16th Street Baptist, he recalled simply following along. After joining in the march, he was incarcerated for nine days. His mother had a particularly hard time getting him released because he, like many other children, responded “no comment” rather than give the police his name. Birmingham businesses had threatened their employees with layoffs if their children were arrested in the demonstrations, so the young protestors avoided identifying themselves. When Casey’s mother went to get him released, the police replied that they had no record of a “Clifton Casey.”
Six months after his release, Casey left Birmingham in 1964 and moved to Cincinnati. He later enlisted in the Air Force. After briefly serving in Vietnam, he returned to the U.S. and became the second black man hired as a brakeman for the Louisville and Nashville Railroad's Kentucky Division. In 1987, he transferred to the railway's Birmingham Division, and in 1988 went back to school to study accounting. In 1993, he took a position as an accountant with an American company in Germany. He retired to Birmingham in 2005.
It was on his sojourn in Germany in the early 1990s, that Casey observed the broader impact of his reluctant childhood activism. “At the time, I thought it was a waste of time going to jail. It was horrible,” Casey recalled. At a photography exhibit about Birmingham’s civil rights movement, however, he ended up in a dynamic conversation on the floor of a Berlin gallery, where he explained the severity of the racism he experienced, and the violent reaction to their passive resistance. “People asked me, did this really happen? Did they really blow up a church and kill four little girls?” Casey recalled, “They were surprised.”
In recent years, Goolsby, Kelsey and Casey have begun sharing their memories of the Children’s Crusade, each feeling compelled to impart to young people the contrast between their own childhoods and today.
“I was just a little person. I was just an ant on a hill,” Casey said. Yet, he emphasized that the power of 1963 came from the collective effort of people who overcame their differences and worked together — something he argues is essential to affecting positive change in the future.
Note: The story originally misspelled Casey's first name as Clifford. It also has been altered to correct mistakes originally published about his military service and career at the L&N Railroad.