Background Essay: Audrey Hendricks
Audrey Hendricks was born in Birmingham, Alabama in 1953. Her childhood
spanned the busiest years of the Civil Rights movement. In 1954, the
Supreme Court ruled in Brown v. Board of Education that
segregated schools were unconstitutional. The following year, Martin
Luther King Jr. led the Montgomery bus boycott, which both mobilized the
black community and activated white resistance. In 1957, school
desegregation in Little Rock, Arkansas required the intervention of
By the early 1960s, Hendricks' family was actively involved in the Civil
Rights movement. Lola Hendricks, Audrey's mother, worked with the
Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights (ACMHR) and the Southern
Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). She helped organize the mass
meetings, nonviolent protests, and economic boycotts that defined the
struggle for racial equality.
Despite early civil rights victories, Birmingham remained one of the
most segregated cities in the South. Because many southern school boards
refused to comply with the Supreme Court, Hendricks attended segregated
schools long after the Brown v. Board of Education ruling.
Birmingham's detailed segregation ordinances made it illegal for African
Americans to use public parks or to sit together with whites in any
public facility. Random voter registration tests and racial violence
prevented most African Americans from voting. In 1961, Hendricks'
parents were among the civil rights activists who won a lawsuit to
integrate Birmingham's 67 parks. Police Commissioner Eugene
"Bull" Connor retaliated by closing the parks.
In the spring of 1963, just before her tenth birthday, Hendricks and
other students left school and joined civil rights leaders in a march to
Birmingham's Sixteenth Street Baptist Church, the staging area for the
demonstrations. Together with students from schools in other parts of
the city, they were organized into protest groups and spent the next
four days demonstrating against discrimination in Birmingham.
Connor tried to stop the demonstrations with police dogs and powerful
fire hoses. But the marches continued. By May 6, approximately 2,000
children were arrested and jailed in what came to be known as the
Children's Crusade. Hendricks was the youngest known demonstrator to be
incarcerated during the Civil Rights movement.
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.
In 1969, fifteen years after Brown v. Board of Education,
Hendricks attended her first desegregated school.