Rembering When Birmingham was Bombingham

Mary Beth Tinker, and her brother John, displaying armbands worn to protest the Vietnam war.

Fifty years ago, when I was ten, I watched on TV as children of the Birmingham Children’s March were attacked by German Shepards and water hoses, then hauled off to jail. Witnessing the attack on TV, from the safety of our living room in Des Moines, Iowa,  I had no idea of the profound effect it would have on history, or my life.
  
By May, 1963, “Bombingham,”  had such racial violence that even Martin Luther King’s “Letter From Birmingham Jail” didn’t motivate enough people to risk their lives “filling the jails,”  as had been planned.  The murder of William Moore, on a walk for freedom, worsened the terror.

Hundreds of youths like Arnetta Streeter, a high school leader of the “Peace Ponies,”  and young Audrey Faye Hendricks, of the Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights (ACMHR), wanted to step up. After much debate, with some saying that students old enough for Christ were old enough for freedom, the youth prevailed.  They geared into action,  thousands streaming in columns out of the 16 St. Baptist Church.

In Iowa, we watched in shock as children were attacked and removed to jail. Finally,  the white establishment, humiliated in front of the world, backed down. 1000 students were expelled from school, and the violence would continue, but King labeled the youth victory as the “coming of age of our nonviolent movement.” 

For a white girl, I knew about “discrimination,”  but not about Birmingham’s “Racial Segregation Ordinances,” or how the NAACP fought to have them ruled unconstitutional.I just knew that these were some really brave kids, and maybe I could be, too.  They had taken something bad and made it good by standing up.

By this time, my parents had decided to put Jesus‘ teachings into action on earth, and Dad’s sermons were tied more and more to civil rights.  Picketing the capital and making up verses to  “We Shall Not Be Moved, we joined the movement.  That didn’t make us popular with some people, though.  That year, my father lost his church, but we were named the Iowa NAACP’s “Family of the Year.” 

If the Birmingham children could face dogs and jail, I could face the taunts of neighbor boys calling me a n.....-lover, and the fear of a new school.   The kids of the Children’s March gave me more of what my parents already had--courage.  

In 1964, my parents went to Ruleville Mississippi after Chaney, Schwerner and Goodman were murdered in Freedom Summer.  I was 11, and my parents brought back stories of brave people like the woman they were staying with when her house was shot at, and Fannie Lou Hamer, who cooked dinner in her little kitchen and told about the attacks she suffered.  She said to “keep on keepin’ on.” 

In 1965, the Voting Rights act was passed, but the Vietnam war was building up.  By Christmas, about 1000 US soldiers had been killed. We joined the Quaker meeting.

When Sen. Robert Kennedy called for a Christmas truce,  some of us decided to wear black armbands to school to support the truce and mourn the dead. The principals made a rule against it, but we wore them anyway.  I thought of the Birmingham kids.

When my father objected, we told him that our conscience motivated us, something he knew about.  A handful of students, including my brother, John, our friend Chris Eckhardt, and I were suspended from school along with several others.  In the midst of threats, red paint thrown at our house, and hate mail, the ACLU befriended us and took the case to court. Again, I thought of the brave kids of the civil rights movement. 

In 1969, the Supreme Court ruled in our favor, saying that neither teachers or students “shed their constitutional rights...at the schoolhouse gate.”  It was a huge victory for students.

Fifty years later, I share our story and the Birmingham story with students. And,  I tell them about 15-year-old Claudette Colvin, who took action on a Montgomery bus before Rosa Parks. I tell them about kids today, like Ijazz, a third grader I met at the Department of Education recently.  She had come to protest school closings in Detroit.  

This September, the NAACP will help launch a national Tinker Tour so I can talk with even more young people. I’ll be joined on the tour by an awarding winning attorney from the Student Press Law Center, Mike Hiestand.    To find out more about the Tinker Tour, and to invite us to your school, go to TinkerTour.org.  And, you can help us get the bus moving through our crowd source funding effort here.  

When Martin Luther King  visited the Birmingham children in jail, he told them that their actions would impact children who hadn’t even been born. They have, and they will!