Carolyn McKinstry was a straight-A student and a spelling bee champion. But on May 2, 1963, the 15-year-old high school sophomore skipped school to join thousands of other students marching to Kelly Ingram Park in Birmingham, Alabama. They gathered to demand an end to racial segregation, and their actions helped get Americans thinking differently the plight of black Americans during what turned out to be a critical year for the civil rights movement (see Timeline, pp. 20-21).
Earlier that year, Martin Luther King Jr and other civil rights leaders had launched the "Birmingham Campaign" to focus national attention on one of the most segregated cities in America. They helped organize voter-registration drives, nonviolent sit-ins, and boycotts of businesses that discriminated against blacks.
Participation by black adults started out strong but waned because many feared losing their jobs. To keep the campaign alive, King and other black leaders asked teens and younger children to step in.
The demonstrations quickly became violent, as police officers turned dogs and high-pressure water Hoses on the peaceful protesters. The graphic images shocked America and the world, and helped change public opinion about the civil rights movement.
Scholastic recently spoke with Carolyn McKinstry, who is 65, about the upcoming 50th anniversary of what is now known as the Birmingham Children's Crusade.
Scholastic: Martin Luther King Jr. once called Birmingham, Alabama, "the most thoroughly segregated city in the United States." What was it like to grow up there?
Carolyn McKinstry: There was no social interaction at all between blacks and whites. As a young person growing up, I was aware of that, but ... we were sheltered from many of the realities of [segregation]. We enjoyed life in spite of the system we were living under.
Scholastic: Civil rights leaders organized the Children's Crusade at the 16th Street Baptist Church. How did you become involved in the march?
CM: I just happened to be there when they had the first mass meeting. I used to volunteer [there]. I was sitting in the office, but I could hear the enthusiasm ... and the cheering. I could hear that something was going on, and when I went to the door and looked out, the church was completely full of young people. And I thought, "Well, whatever this is, I want to be a part of it."
Scholastic: How did they prepare you and the other kids for the march?
CM: Dr. King gave the first speech. He told us we were fighting for our freedom and for equality. That meant sitting wherever you wanted to on the bus.... It also meant being able to shop where you wanted to, to try on the clothes, to work there, to eat there.... And he talked about the fact that this was a nonviolent movement.... Someone else came after Dr. King and said, "Policemen will be out there. They may have billy clubs. They may hit you. They may have dogs" ... to just prepare us.
Scholastic: Groups of kids from all over Birmingham marched. Your group gathered near Parker High School, where you were a sophomore. How...