Back to the Future: A New Children’s Crusade

By the Rev. Starsky D. Wilson,
president & CEO – Deaconess Foundation

This week, we recall the nation’s last great era of social change with the grand re-opening of the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis and the Civil Rights Summit at the Lyndon Johnson Presidential Library in Austin, TX. On April 4-5 at the former Lorraine Motel, the 46th anniversary and location of the assassination of Dr. Martin L. King, Jr. provided the context for community leaders and activists to gather. While April 8-10 at the presidential library at the University of Texas, four of five living presidents addressed the critical nature of the 1964 Civil Rights Act signed by Johnson on its 50th anniversary to advance the ideal of America.

These are, perhaps, providential bookends, recognizing both the sacrifice of community mobilization and the necessity of well-placed policy for broad-based community change.

On April 5th, I was awed to be among the first people in the nation to re-enter the Civil Rights Museum after an eighteen month closure for a $28 million facelift. With fresh eyes on a renewed, yet familiar landscape, I was compelled by the exhibit on the Birmingham Children’s Crusade in May of 1963. Between May 2nd and 6th more than 2,500 children and youth were arrested for marching through the city’s streets. They filled up the jails and caused the stadium to be transformed into a make-shift prison.  It was their actions, and the spectacle of kids being blasted by water hoses in the hands of public servants, that turned public opinion and became a pivotal point leading to the passage of the 1964 legislation. The American people could not bear to see these children as the dramatic victims of our nation’s inequities in access to opportunity, security and health.

While we lack such a dramatic picture today, it is still the case that the lack of mobilized public will and civic infrastructure to assure equal opportunity and access negatively impacts our kids.

In reflection on those Birmingham children, I caught a glimpse of the students from Normandy who recently marched from their school to the administration building to dramatize their plea for investment in their district. I sense the spirit of Sumner High School students who organized a rally for peace in their neighborhoods. I envision the words of college interns at the Scholarship Foundation pleading with Missouri leaders to increase funding for Access Missouri in support of low-income students pursuing higher education. I hear the voices of youth served by Epworth lobbying legislators during last week’s Child Advocacy Day to sustain support for them as they age out of foster care.

These are the seeds of a new children’s crusade.

To be clear, the children in Birmingham did not act alone. Supporters of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference underwrote the enterprise. Rev. James Bevel suggested and coordinated the action. President Kennedy’s administration intervened to negotiate peace. And Dr. King was arrested challenging the city before they were. These complementary actions watered the seeds.

To advance a movement for child well-being on our community, we must be willing to water these seeds by investing in building public will, engaging children and parents who are most affected, and advocating on their behalf toward a vision of community that makes vulnerable children a priority.

It’s time for a new Children’s Crusade.