Editor’s note: Last month Weld invited readers to submit their thoughts about the year 1963 being commemorated in Birmingham as a watershed moment in Civil Rights history. As the city officially celebrates 50 Years Forward, there are individuals for whom 1963 takes on particular and personal significance. Here, in our first monthly installment, are two of those voices.
Tobi Adejumo is a second generation American whose parents emigrated from Nigeria. A ninth grader at Carver High School, Tobi’s teacher Wyatt Smith has invited the class to participate in our 1963 project. Tobi is a very talented writer, Smith says. This is Tobi’s essay. “I believe,” Smith said, “you’ll find it compelling.”
The year 1963 was a year of great change and triumph in Birmingham, Alabama, and the nation of America. Not only has 1963 brought about great change in Birmingham but also it changed my life, and has brought about the freedom that the Civil Right leaders fought for.
On May 2, 1963, one of the greatest youth movements took place right here in downtown Birmingham. Over a thousand African-American students ranging from 8 years of age to 18 skipped school and gathered at Kelly Ingram Park. Once the clock hit 1 o’clock, all the students took to the streets to march to downtown Birmingham. This shows just how determined these children were. At the end of the day, about a thousand students were in jail and some badly hurt.
Martin Luther King Jr. said, “A man who won’t die for something is not fit to live,” and these children were ready to fight for what they believed, enough to put their lives on the line for the sake of liberty. This shows even though I am only 14, I can make a difference, if I am ready to fight for what I believe and see the situation till the end. Their struggle for civil rights proves that age is not a limitation of what we can accomplish. Rather it should be our motivation. Today, I can sit anywhere on the bus; I can go to any school, and not be forced to feel inferior just because I was born with a darker skin completion.
This time period has made me become a risk-taker. I am now willing to set aside my fears and shames to help others around me just like the Civil Rights activists. For example, two years ago in seventh grade, several kids were bullied because of the way they were dressed, the shoes they wore, and how they talked. Every day the boys in eighth grade would taunt and harass them. Nobody reported, because they were afraid they would be the next victim.
Eventually, I could not stand it anymore. I decided to bring about a change to this situation by telling the bullies what they were doing is wrong. Yet, they did not listen, so the next day I reported to the school counselor. Even though the bullying stopped for a couple of days I knew it wouldn’t last. A group of friends and I decided to come together and started a small anti-bullying club in our school.
“The purpose of life is to be useful, to be honorable, to be compassionate, and to have it make some difference that you have lived and lived well,” wrote Ralph Waldo Emerson. With this said, I will do the work that the Civil Rights leaders left for us. I will not say I am too young, and I will persevere to the end for what I believe in. I will finish my journey and risk my life to save others because it’s right.
Bud Precise works with Pilgrim Church and volunteers at the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute. He recalls his time with an east Birmingham church during the Civil Rights era.
I was a student just out of seminary during the civil rights struggles here in Birmingham. I worked at Huffman United Methodist Church. I have several memories, but will write about two of them as they relate to that time in Birmingham.
The first: I was the Sunday night preacher at our church. In those days, we would have 350 people at worship on Sunday night. The Sunday the four girls were killed at Sixteenth Street Baptist Church, we were to have evening worship. I told the organist we were not singing happy Christian songs that night. We were not singing anything. At the time for worship to begin, I asked the congregation to come to the altar and pray for the girls who lost their lives. I asked also that we pray for their families and for ourselves and for our city during this time. That would be all the worship we would have.
The next morning, Monday, the senior pastor called me into his office and told me if anything else was said about race in worship at the church, he would say it. I informed him that he would need to begin preaching on Sunday nights. If he was going to tell me what to say, he could just say it. He told me I could continue to preach on Sunday night, but he would not back me up if I got into trouble.
Some members of the congregation read a petition at the next three Administrative Board meetings asking the Board to ask the Bishop to move me from the church. The chairman of the board would just say, “I will not entertain that motion.” After three months, about fifty families left the church to help begin a Southern Methodist congregation. It was tough because a lot of those folks were good folks. I visited them and asked them not to move their membership. If they needed to go to the other church, go on, but I suspected the church would not make it and they would be too embarrassed to come back to Huffman. In six months, that church did split and I suspect most of those folks just dropped out of the church.
The second: It was my day to visit members of the congregation in the hospitals. I had visited members at St. Vincent’s and University Hospitals. It was past time for lunch. I went to Woolworth’s because you could get a good, hot lunch there and it was cheap. I went to the lunch counter because all the tables were filled with folks. The waitress gave me a menu and then it dawned on me that something was not right.
I looked around and noticed that all the tables were filled with black people. It was a sit-in. Just a few months earlier, while at Candler Theology School [in Atlanta], I had written a paper for an ethics class about New South Magazine. They (from the magazine) had called one day to inform me they were going over to Martin Luther King’s house that evening and asked if I wanted to go. I was glad for the opportunity. I had been to King’s church a few times, but he was always gone when I was there. He was not home that evening. His brother A.D. was there.
I got to witness a training of “sit-in” demonstrators, conducted by Wyatt Tee Walker. It occurred to me at Woolworth’s that some of these people at the tables might have been trained by Walker. The waitress came back to get my order. I told her that the folks at the tables were there before I was, that she could wait on them first. She informed me, “The law says I have to serve them, it doesn’t say when.”
So I said, “I can’t eat with you today.”
Send your contributions to Weld’s Project 1963 to email@example.com. Put “1963” in the subject header, and let us know if you have a high resolution photo of yourself.