by Fr. John Dear, S.J.
Pax Christi USA Ambassador of Peace
I’ve been pondering the 1963 Birmingham campaign, which led to the March on Washington and civil rights legislation, for clues about resisting our ongoing systemic racism, oppression of the poor, corporate greed, global militarism and refusal to fight climate change.
This 50th anniversary reminds me that in the David and Goliath-like battle that pitted Martin Luther King, Jr., school children and the best of the Civil Rights movement against vicious police Chief Eugene “Bull” Connor, the Ku Klux Klan and white racists — active nonviolence can transform anything.
We remember how high school and elementary school kids marched by the thousands from the 16th Street Baptist church into Kelly Ingram Park and faced down the fire men, German shepherds and loaded guns. We remember Dr. King’s Good Friday arrest, and the document he produced behind bars, one of the most significant in our history, “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.” Combined with the economic boycott of downtown white businesses, these public protests — and the subsequent overcrowded jails, international TV coverage and national outrage — were too much for the white establishment, and segregation fell.
The climactic moment occurred May 5, 1963, the third day into their “D-Day” children’s campaign, when thousands of children marched through the streets right up to the firemen. In the days before, many were brutalized when fire hoses were turned on them. But the youth learned the lessons of Dr. King. “Nonviolent suffering love is always redemptive.” “We will match your capacity to inflict suffering with our capacity to accept suffering and we will wear you down until justice comes.”…