The civil rights movement in Birmingham changed the course of the law in this country, and much of that change owes directly to the willingness of ordinary people, many of them children, to risk their safety in a bid for freedom. For Birmingham Foot Soldiers: Voices from the Civil Rights Movement, I interviewed several of those brave souls, each with their own incredible story.
With such stories floating around can you imagine a whole group of competing news reporters just passing up hundreds of opportunities to regale their readers with tales of heroism, sacrifice and courage? Not just one reporter, but almost all of them, missing opportunities to put a human face on one of the biggest stories of the day.
That’s what happened in Birmingham in 1963. There were hundreds of people, many of them exuberant and on fire for change, who could have told the inside story of what may have been the most extraordinary mass movement in American history, when a seemingly powerless people rose up and risked their necks in resistance to oppression.
And yet, most of those individual stories have gone untold.
That’s why the stories in Birmingham Foot Soldiers were compelling for me to share and why they are worth reading.
Think about the context in which the Civil Rights Movement happened. Imagine waking as a third generation second class citizen. Imagine that your grandparents were slaves, and that the best you can hope for is a lifetime filled with lower wages and scarce opportunity for advancement, inferior school resources, derogatory slurs in the daytime, and random acts of terror at night, some committed with impunity by the very people sworn to protect and serve – the police.
If you could change things – would you?
Birmingham residents by the thousands lived that life and took a bold stand against it. Birmingham Foot Soldiers tells the stories of individuals who fought against institutionalized racism. They came to the Movement from different places, but they were all striving for the same result: freedom.
I learned about the foot soldiers as a reporter at the daily Birmingham Post-Herald, slowly becoming aware of the depth of history still living in the memories of people right in our figurative backyard. I interviewed Fred Shuttlesworth, the firebrand minister who had been the leader of the Birmingham movement. I interviewed James Armstrong — who later became the subject of the award-winning documentary The Barber of Birmingham – then still working in his shop and speaking out about social justice.
I interviewed Lola Hendricks, the former corresponding secretary of the ACMHR, the Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights. And I got to talk to her daughter Audrey who, in the 60s, had defied her mother (as many teenagers did) to get into the protests. I also had the privilege of talking to Nettie Flemmons, Annetta Streeter Gary, and Myrna Carter Jackson, who became a principal figure in Birmingham Foot Soldiers.
Many, though not all of those interviews were featured in a series I did with fellow reporter Sara Foss and photographer Chris Jacobs, called “Foot Soldiers.”
It was a profound experience, one that would remain with me long after the Post-Herald’s “Foot Soldiers” series, and the Post-Herald itself, had faded into memory. So in 2013, as the 50th anniversary of those pivotal civil rights events were being celebrated in Birmingham, when the editor of History magazine contacted me about submitting something, what I wrote about was that part of the Birmingham Movement called the Children’s Crusade. And weeks later, when the acquisitions editor of History Press contacted me about pitching book ideas, the first thing I thought of was the foot soldiers.
As I worked on the book, I learned that even with what I already knew, there was so much more, so many other facets to the story of those brave souls who had faced down Bull Connor, his fire hoses, his police dogs and every conceivable lockup in Birmingham.
These people created history, but not all of them wanted to be heroes or martyrs. Some had joined the movement, sure enough, for idealistic reasons or because they were fed up with being denied opportunity. Some joined because their friends or family persuaded them to go to movement mass meetings. Some got involved because their friends said, “Hey, let’s cut school and join the march!”
Some were poor, some were middle class. Some were teenagers, some were a bit older. Some were fired up and determined. Others were scared – or soon would be. But they put the mass into the mass movement behind Shuttlesworth, King and the other leaders of the freedom movement. They were the foot soldiers — ordinary citizens who just happened to change the course of the lawin the most powerful country on earth. Some shared their stories with me.
Ultimately, Birmingham Foot Soldiers proved to be an act of uncovering those experiences which still live among us today if only we take the time to listen. It was and remains an act of approaching history – hidden in plain sight — which I was privileged to uncover.