The Birmingham Campaign of 1963 has gone down in history as one of the great successes of the modern civil rights movement. Yet at the time it seemed headed for failure as police brutality under Bull Connor and Klan violence against the black community combined to instill fear that greatly reduced the numbers of people willing to protest. Even Dr. King's arrest and week in the Birmingham city jail did not provide the needed momentum to inspire increased protests. During the first week of May, the leaders of the movement made a fateful decision to allow children to participate in non-violent direct action. They received the same training and were subject to the same treatment as anyone else. The response of the children of Birmingham turned the tide of the campaign. Thousands of children made the commitment to protest non-violently and accept arrest. Eventually the jails were full and even the fair grounds converted into a make shift jail could not hold the numbers of arrested children. That's when the authorities decided to disperse the young protestors with high pressure fire hoses and police dogs. The now famous images from May 1963 were broadcast around the country and convicted the conscience of the nation leading to a negotiated settlement to desegregate public accommodations. At the heart of the witness of the children and all people committed to non-violent direct action in Birmingham was the pledge to which they committed as the foundation for their training. It is a clear statement of the spiritual foundation of not only the Birmingham campaign but of the whole civil rights movement.
I HEREBY PLEDGE MYSELF - MY PERSON AND BODY - TO THE NON-VIOLENT MOVEMENT. THEREFORE I WILL KEEP THE FOLLOWING TEN COMMANDMENTS:
- MEDITATE daily on the teachings and life of Jesus.
- REMEMBER always that the nonviolent movement in Birmingham seeks justice and reconciliation - not victory.
- WALK and TALK in the manner of love, for God is love.
- PRAY daily to be used by God in order that all men might be free.
- SACRIFICE personal wishes in order that all men might be free.
- OBSERVE with both friend and foe the ordinary rules of courtesy.
- SEEK to perform regular service for others and for the world
- REFRAIN from the violence of fist, tongue, and heart.
- STRIVE to be in good spiritual and bodily health.
- FOLLOW the directions of the movement and of the captain of a demonstration
I sign this pledge, having seriously considered what I do and with the determination and will to persevere.
The Birmingham Pledge is still a great summary of the connection between spiritual formation and the struggle for justice. As we continue that struggle today, may we follow the example of the children who led the way 55 years ago who put their faith into action. One way of living into this legacy today is to support and participate in the 2018 Poor People's Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival that will take place in DC and around the country from May 13 - June 21. For more information go here.
The video posted below provides a glimpse into the witness of the children of Birmingham in May 1963.