How Did Children Participate in the Civil Rights Movement?

This post contains research conducted by Khrisma McMurray, a summer 2022 Junior Fellow at the Library of Congress.

As we honor the legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr. this year, we invite your families to explore the different ways that children participated in the civil rights movement and the impact that Martin Luther King, Jr. had on young people using resources from the Library.

Children’s Crusade: What Would You Do if Martin Luther King, Jr. Invited You to March?

An article in the St. PAul recorder wit hteh headline "America On Trial in Birmingham"

“America on Trail in Birmingham”. The St. Paul Recorder, May 9, 1963, Chronicling America, Historic American Newspapers.

Martin Luther King Jr.’s influence on one child was profound, as activist Freeman Hrabowski recounted in an oral history included in the Civil Rights History Project held at the Library. At minute mark 30:00, Hrabowski shares how, in 1963 at age twelve, he heard a guest speaker at his Montgomery, Alabama church propose involving children in the city’s ongoing protests. When Hrabowski asked the speaker’s name, people responded, “King, King.” This was Hrabowski’s first encounter with Martin Luther King, Jr.

After hearing King speak, Hrabowski felt personally invited to participate in the Birmingham Children’s March—a pivotal moment of the civil rights movement involving over 5,000 young protesters. The children made front-page news nationwide as they endured being knocked to the ground by powerful water hoses, attacks by police dogs, and up to five days of detention in jail without their parents. At minute mark 41:00, Hrabowski recollects that one of his jobs in jail was to comfort incarcerated 8-year-olds.

While the details are disturbing and the move to expose children to such risks was controversial, the event galvanized the movement. Today, historians consider it a turning point and for Hrabowski, it was a personal watershed. As he recalled at minute mark 42:48, “What the experience taught me was that even children can make decisions that can have an impact on the rest of their lives, and that children know the difference between right and wrong.”

How A Play About Martin Luther King Jr. Inspired a Youth Sit-In

In this oral history interview, Marilyn Luper Hildreth recalls how a theatrical adaptation of King’s story catalyzed the NAACP Youth Council in Oklahoma City. When Hildreth was in elementary school in 1957, her mother wrote the play “Brother President” based on Martin Luther King, Jr.’s life. After experiencing integration when travelling through the north to perform the play, Hildreth and her friends—age six to sixteen—staged a sit-in at the lunch counter of Katz’s Drug Store. Despite enduring physical and verbal abuse, their action was successful. As Hildreth shared at the 8:00 minute mark, “We went from restaurant to restaurant to restaurant until the walls of segregation starting falling down in Oklahoma City.”

Children Act Against Injustice

A three-quarter length black and white portrait of a six year old girl wearing a checkered school dress and smiling as she looks up

Six-year-old Ruby Bridges, three-quarter length portrait, standing, facing front. Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs, New York World-Telegram and the Sun Newspaper Photograph Collection.

Ruby Bridges was born in 1954—the year the Supreme Court, in the landmark Brown vs. Board of Education case, ruled that segregated schools are inherently unequal.

Despite the ruling, many districts across the South resisted integration. In November of 1960—six years after the decision—Ruby Bridges began her education as the first African-American student at William Frantz Elementary School in New Orleans. White families pulled their students from the school in retaliation, and Bridges had to attend classes by herself with the one teacher who was willing to teach her, Barbara Henry. She was jeered by a mob each day on her way to school and surrounded by federal marshals for her protection.

Today, Ruby Bridges is a speaker and children’s book author, who appeared virtually at the 2022 National Book Festival to discuss her new book “I Am Ruby Bridges.” Watch the video below with children in your life to learn more about her life and writings today. At minute 14:38, for example, she talks about how books can help children understand the world.

In addition to hearing from a child activist from the past, you can also learn from Tybre Faw, the subject of the book Because of You, John Lewis, which compares Martin Luther King, Jr.’s mentorship of John Lewis to Tybre’s relationship with the late Congressman. In this video, also from the 2022 National Book Festival, children can hear how today’s civil rights activists can be inspired by leaders of the past.

Activities and Reflection:

  • Create a play or a work of art: Marilyn Luper Hildreth shared how she participated in a play based on her mother’s interpretation of Martin Luther King Jr’s life story. Work with your child to create a piece of art or writing inspired by Library collections about the civil rights movement.
  • Write a letter to Ruby: In her interview from the National Book Festival, Ruby Bridges notes that “I’ve been traveling for 25 years, visiting schools and classrooms, doing presentations with students and sharing my story with them. And I would get boxes and boxes of mail from classrooms…I think parents and educators are going to be so moved because we sometimes have a tendency to underestimate the things that our children are really thinking about and processing.” Share with the children in your life that children often write to Ruby Bridges, and she keeps their letters. What would they say to her if they could?
  • Follow a map towards justice: How did segregation and the legal and political movement to end segregation affect all levels of education, from elementary to higher education? Use this StoryMap to explore the Path Towards Desegregation and this StoryMap about Increasing Access to Education

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