Weeks after a hurricane delayed the dedication of a new national memorial to the late civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr., President Obama will lead the ceremonies on Sunday, Oct. 16.
King was a southern Baptist minister who rose to become the leading voice of the nation’s modern day civil rights movement during the 1950’s and 1960’s. His struggle for equal rights and those of millions of African Americans did not come easily.
Martin Luther King Jr. came to Birmingham, Alabama, in 1963 on a mission - to a place he called "the most segregated city in the United States."
“To dramatize this blatant injustice. And to demand that the federal government not put a cent in this city unless it decides to face the realities of desegregation,” King said.
In the non-violent demonstrations that followed, King and hundreds of protesters were arrested.
They were pressing the city to eliminate laws that sought to keep blacks and whites separated in schools, restaurants and many other public places.
Historian Robert Corley says King and the local civil rights leaders needed this strategy to succeed.
“There had been no movement whatsoever in this city towards any form of desegregation of any of its institutions," he said. "So King was saying if we can win in Birmingham , if we can come to Birmingham and prevail then we can win anywhere.”
King and his followers were met with fierce resistance from the police. Public Safety Commissioner Eugene “Bull” Connor, backed by the majority of white residents, was determined to stop the demonstrations.
Without enough volunteers to continue the protests, King and other leaders enlisted hundreds of young schoolchildren to keep the marches going and fill up the jails.
The young African American student protesters would gather here on the steps of the 16th Street Baptist Church and hear inspirational speeches from civil rights leaders like Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. They would then file from the church and walk across the street to a park where they were determined to demonstrate peacefully for equal rights.
“I was arrested after we got about a block away from the church in this area,” jailed demonstrator Janice Kelsey recalled. She was 16 years old when she and her schoolmates were jailed. “My mind was made up. I was going to participate, I was going to go to jail because I wanted to get my freedom,” she said.
Then, on the second day of the student demonstrations, things turned violent.
Police turned high-pressure fire hoses on the young people, and set attack dogs on them. Birmingham civil rights leader Reverend Calvin Woods was there.
“There had been some people bitten by dogs and some killings. Many people were beaten and spit on and put in jail, lost jobs. But those were minor things compared to what we felt we had to do,” he explained.
The brutal crackdown was widely televised and images of the event were seen around the world. Robert Corley says this incident galvanized new support for the civil rights movement.
“It was that children’s crusade that really turned the tide because it did serve his the goal of filling up the jails and forcing the white community to come to the table with King and negotiate some sort of settlement,” he stated.
Eventually, King and Birmingham city leaders reached an agreement. Within months, the local segregation laws were abolished. Reverend Woods says King’s determination to keep the movement going made all the difference.
“We would not have accomplished what we did if it had not been for the support and leadership that Dr. King brought,” Woods said.
The Birmingham campaign was a climactic battle of the civil rights movement. For many, it stands as an iconic symbol of the sacrifices made by King and thousands of African Americans.