Washington Booker was born in Marengo County, Alabama, in 1949. He was
five years old and living in Birmingham when the Supreme Court ruled in
Brown v. Board of Education that segregated schools were
unconstitutional, but it would take years for many states to comply with
the Court's ruling. In Birmingham, one of the most segregated cities in
the South, the promise of equality was still a long way off.
Booker's home life buffered some of the effects of poverty and
segregation. He and his family lived in a rooming house with black
baseball players from the Black Barons, Birmingham's Negro League team;
Booker was a batboy for the team. Like most black children in
Birmingham, Booker witnessed segregation in all facets of life: Blacks
were not allowed to join white sports teams, they could not attend the
same schools as whites or eat at the same restaurants, nor were they
allowed to sit with whites in any public facility. Birmingham police
officers often enforced segregation with violence against African
Americans. During the Civil Rights movement, nonviolent activists were
beaten, arrested, and sometimes murdered.
In 1963, Booker was a student at Ullman High School. On May 2, he
joined civil rights leaders and hundreds of students in a march to
Birmingham's Sixteenth Street Baptist Church, the staging area for the
demonstrations. There they joined students from schools in other parts
of the city, organized protest groups, and spent the next four days
demonstrating against discrimination in Birmingham.
Police Commissioner Eugene "Bull" Connor tried to stop the
demonstrations with police dogs and fire hoses. Despite police
brutality, the marches continued. By May 6, aprroximately 2,000
children, including Booker, were arrested and jailed in what came to be
known as the Children's Crusade.
National news coverage stunned the public with images of the violence in
the streets of Birmingham. President John F. Kennedy was forced to take
action. For the first time, he declared civil rights a "moral
issue" and began drafting federal legislation that would protect
the rights of African American citizens. The ensuing Civil Rights Act of
1964 outlawed segregation and discrimination in all public facilities.
After high school, Booker joined the Army, served in combat in Vietnam,
and eventually returned to Birmingham. In the late 1960s, frustrated by
police brutality against African Americans and by the slow pace of
change, Booker joined the Black Panther Party, a black militant group
that advocated black power and rejected the nonviolent strategies of
civil rights leaders like Martin Luther King Jr.
What memories of discrimination did Booker recall from his childhood?
Why were children in Birmingham willing to go to jail in pursuit of justice?
What is the significance of Booker's comments about courage, defiance, and self-assurance in demanding civil rights?