A TIME FOR ALL GOD’S CHILDREN “The Children’s March” Rev. Robin Bartlett
Mahatma Gandhi said once that “if we are to reach real peace in this world, and if we are to carry on a real war against war, we shall have to begin with the children.”
In Birmingham Alabama in 1963, black people and white people couldn’t eat at the same lunch counters. They couldn’t drink from the same water fountains. Black children and white children couldn’t go to the same schools.
And The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. believed this was wrong. He was a minister in a church, and he taught his congregants that God loved every one as God’s children as God’s own, no matter what their skin color. More importantly, he listened to people like Mahatma Ghandi who thought that the best way to change things was to do it peacefully, without violence. He taught the religion of Jesus, who said that we should “love our enemies.”
And so he helped black people and white people protest the fact that they had to be separate from one another by going to the restaurants they weren’t supposed go into, and to peacefully sit in them. To go to the front of buses where they weren’t allowed and peacefully sit in the seats. He encouraged black people and white people to march peacefully together for their freedom all over the south.
Birmingham Alabama was a particularly hard place for black people in 1963. The mayor of the town was particularly mean. And Martin Luther King took his people to march on Birmingham in peaceful protest, but the marches weren’t peaceful. The mayor turned fire hoses and dogs on the people at the protests. He put them all in jail. Soon people got very discouraged and stopped marching.
At a church service like this one, Martin Luther King gave one of his inspirational sermons asking people to stand up for justice…asking them to march. Who will march? He said. No one stood up. They were too scared; too sad; too tired. The mayor in Birmingham was too mean.
But finally, one by one, the children of the church stood up until they were all standing. They pledged to march. None of the adults stood; just the children. The children in Birmingham wanted to join the peaceful protests. They felt the sting of injustice just as much as the adults did, if not more, and they wanted to help. The adults said, “no! We will not let you go to jail.” But the children insisted, leaving their schools the next day to march. And the police sprayed them with water hoses, and turned the dogs on them, and sent them to jail until the jails were filled up with children.
As soon as the children were arrested, they broke their silence with song. And the children sang (to the tune of the Old Gray Mare) Ain’t a scared of your jail, ‘cause I want my freedom, I want my freedom, I want my freedom. Ain’t a scare of your jail, ‘cause I want my freedom, I want my freedom now.” They sang the whole time they were in jail.
The jails were so full in Birmingham, that they had no more room to put any more peaceful protestors.
On the evening of May 3rd, King offered encouragement to parents of the young protesters in a speech delivered at the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church. He said, “Don’t worry about your children; they are going to be alright. Don’t hold them back if they want to go to jail, for they are not only doing a job for themselves, but for all of America and for all of humankind.”
Dr. King was right. The children’s march in Birmingham helped pave the way for the Civil Rights act to be passed in 1964. The courage of the children to stand up for freedom helped change the minds and hearts and laws of the whole country.
Dr. King said: “somehow we must be able to stand up before our most bitter opponents and say, ‘We shall match your capacity to inflict suffering by our capacity to endure suffering. We will meet your physical force with soul force. Do to us what you will, and we will still love you.”
Children, will you stand so we can pray for you? Congregation, hold out your hands to bless:
May our children continue to inspire us with their soul force and courage to love. Amen.
Reverend Robin Bartlett is an ordained Unitarian Universalist minister, with dual standing in the United Church of Christ. She is the Senior Pastor at The First Church in Sterling, Massachusetts.