“We Shall Overcome” Racial Injustice: Lessons from the Civil Rights Movement

By Joan Witherspoon Norris, Director of Social Justice, and Jacob Smith, Donor Relations Specialist
YWCA of Central Alabama

This year marks the 50th Anniversary of the Civil Rights Movement in the United States. In 1963, Birmingham, Alabama was at the center of these momentous events that would change history. Sit-ins at lunch counters, Dr. Martin Luther King Junior’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing—these are a few of the events that took place that year.

As the YWCA Central Alabama reflects on the past and commits to building a stronger, more unified future, one historical event in particular seems to resonate. On May 2, 1963, more than 1,000 black students marched in downtown Birmingham, singing “We Shall Overcome.” These students were met with high-powered fire hoses and German shepherds. Birmingham Police Commissioner “Bull” O’Connor had 959 of these students arrested. After almost a week of these marches, productive conversations between the white business community and the civil rights movement leaders began. This event, known as The Children’s Crusade, has been seen as one of the most effective tactics in quickly bringing progress.

While it may seem cliché to say that children are our future, the YWCA Central Alabama believes that investing in students is the most effective means to making racial (and social) justice a reality. It is because of the influence students had 50 years ago and continue to have in our schools and communities today that the YW chooses to invest in middle and high school students.

Partnering with the National Conference for Community and Justice (NCCJ) Alabama, the YW hosts Anytown Alabama, a one-week summer camp where high school students representing different races, genders, creeds, nationalities, schools, religions, sexual orientations and abilities come together to participate in honest dialogue and interactive learning about racial and social justice issues.

In 2011, six students at Anytown Alabama were from undocumented or mixed-documented families. On the fifth night of camp, we had planned to introduce a new workshop which focused on the impact that documentation status has on people. However, our plans were derailed that morning when Alabama’s governor signed into law the nation’s harshest immigration law.

So plans changed, and the brave students who would be most affected by this law spoke candidly of the fear and lost hope that this law represented for them. The rest of us simply listened and supported these students and our questions about the implications of undocumented immigration on jobs, social services and law enforcement had to wait. But when the answers were heard, they were heard with ears and hearts that knew of the pain and human suffering, not just of any humans, but of the friends with whom we share camp meals, laugh, sing camp songs and wait in line for the showers.

Fifty years ago, the Children’s Crusade brought the power of students into our consciousness, and every summer at Anytown Alabama, the students remind us that bridging our differences is possible if we meet each other with courage, open ears and hearts, humility and an expectation of a positive outcome.

Joan is YWCA Central Alabama’s Director of Social Justice which allows her to direct Anytown Alabama, a social justice leadership camp for high school students. Prior to the YWCA, Joan worked for the National Conference for Community and Justice (NCCJ), taught middle school, led teenagers on wilderness trips and taught English in Nicaragua.  Joan has great faith in teenagers’ abilities to think critically, work collaboratively and act compassionately. 

Jacob is YWCA Central Alabama’s Donor Relations Specialist. He has worked as an advisor on staff at Anytown Alabama and served as the Social Justice AmeriCorps. Prior to the YWCA, Jacob interned with Bridge Builders and Student.Go.

Stand Against Racism logoThis post is part of the YWCA USA Stand Against Racism blog carnival on issues of race, justice and diversity. We invite you to join the dialogue! Post your comment below, share your story and follow the conversation on Twitter with the hashtag #StandAgainstRacism.

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