Foot Soldier of the Children’s March

By on February 25, 2014
Martin Luther King, Jr. along with fellow Civil Rights Activists are memorialized in Birmingham's Kelly Ingram Park across from the The sixteenth Street Baptist. Daniel Twieg/Photo Editor

BSAC hosted their third major program of Black History Month, a program entitled “The Children’s March,” featuring a foot soldier of the movement, Ms. Gloria Watts, last Thursday in Heritage Hall.

The program opened up with a stirring a capella rendition of “Lift Every Voice and Sing”, often dubbed the Black National Anthem. The song, initially written as a poem by James Weldon Johnson in 1899 and set to music by his brother in 1900, was performed by the newly formed gospel group “Undefeated Praise”, a seven member ensemble founded and led by UAB student JonTomas Johnson, a junior music education major and a longtime member of UAB’s Gospel Choir. Since their launch in the autumn of last year, the group has enjoyed considerable success in performing in local and major gospel venues in Birmingham. This January, the group performed at the Stellar Awards pre-show showcase, the gospel equivalent of performing at a Grammy preshow.

After the two minute hymn, the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute’s Laura Anderson, archivist and director of the Oral History Project, gave a short presentation detailing the project, and called for the help of researchers and highlighted the importance of shared oral history. Immediately following her presentation, Mighty Times: The Children’s March, which won the Academy Award for Documentary Short Subject in 2005, was screened.

Ms. Gloria Watts was one of the interviewees, and appears in the film.

The 40 minute documentary was a succinct but comprehensive view at the origins, strategy, challenges, conclusion, anecdotes, and effects of the “Children’s March” campaign held in May of 1963. The documentary, through testimonials and images lucidly animated the pages of textbooks and rejuvenated many attendant’s enthusiasm about the Civil Rights movement as a whole.

“It just gives me life, it just gives me life,” student coordinator of the Black Student Awareness Committee and senior childhood education major, Janessa Gray said of the film.

Following the film, the featured speaker for the night took to the microphone. A zealous, feisty woman, and also a graduate of UAB, Gloria Watts, who was a teenager when she participated in the iconic campaign, began by emphatically declaring that “to God be the glory for all he has done!” That phrase, and expressive, rhythmic cadence, is a familiar refrain in the African American Church, and prompted an affirmative and nostalgic “Amen!” from the audience.

Watts, now in her mid-to-late 60’s, began by ferociously quoting New Testament scripture “for God has not given us a spirit of fear, but of love.”

“Birmingham suffered from a horrible disease,” Watts said, and added that the disease was hate, and that it was worse than “AIDS or Anthrax”.

“Not one time,” Watts said, “did we complain that it was unfair, life is unfair, but what we wanted was equal.”  

The Children of Birmingham were fearless, because the only way that evil exists is that good people do nothing.”

Recalling the conditions of the Birmingham she knew, she remarked that “you couldn’t even rest at night for all of the bombs that went off. We would rather them kill us in the day, than them take us out one by one during the day.”

And that was the renowned strategy of Martin Luther King Jr., James Bevel, and Shuttlesworth, to highlight the inhumane treatment of Blacks in broad daylight, and to overflow the jail system. “What type of man,” Watts said, “what type of man would bring fire hoses on children, would bring dogs out on children?”

“Some call Bull Connor a monster. I don’t call him that. He was a demon.”

Watts began to get choked up. She told the crowd about that it had taken her years to share publicly her story, and said that “many of the foot soldiers have PTSD.” She spoke about how the youngest children were about eight years old and how scarcely they were fed, such as being rationed one bologna sandwich per day. She shocked the audience as she revealed that she was arrested and imprisoned on the second day of the protest, and that she was not released until that August, with some of that time spent in solitary confinement.

Describing some of the prison conditions, she hinted to instances of sexual assault. “Remember when I said that they wanted to kill us in the night? Well what you think was happening in the jail, the white guards had hundreds of beautiful young black girls to choose from.”

Even amidst the dismal setting, she pointed to the brazenness of her peers, and the gospel singing within the cells.

Near conclusion, her talk donned a more hortatory tone, calling for “this killing and sagging of the pants must stop. Does this show that we respect ourselves or love ourselves?”

Continuing in her encouragement, Watts exhorted that “the key to success is education,” and to “never let your age limit you, because had it not been for us, then there would have been no March on Washington, no Selma, no Civil and Voting Rights Acts in ’64 and ’65.”

She concluded with an original, vivid poem entitled “I Remember” that chronicled her childhood memories of segregation.

“[…] and in 1963/the bell of freedom rang/the story’s not over/’cause many said I shouldn’t [march]/but Victory’s been won/because I remember when I couldn’t”

And it is that “victory” that Bernard Jenkins, longtime Birmingham resident, foot soldier and high school classmate stands in awe of. Reflecting after the event, he said the following:

“Now I’m not discounting that we have a long way to go. But this is unreal to me. That we’ve come this far. I never thought I’d see this day. In my day, you could go into Black neighborhoods and not see a car for blocks. In the 50’s there were Black families finding lumber in the winter because the gas company wouldn’t run a line to their house. Folks still cooking on wooden stoves and no electricity. Folks would work and only get half of what the other got. And they had families to feed. Again, I’m not saying we don’t have a ways to go. But it wasn’t that long ago that we couldn’t eat at some restaurants. Y’all keep on doing the good work, and ask your grandparents, they’ll tell ya’.”

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