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The Foot Soldiers of Justice

In Birmingham, Ala., a reunion will honor the ordinary people who took extraordinary risks on the front lines of the civil rights movement.

May 02, 2003|Ken Ellingwood | Times Staff Writer

BIRMINGHAM, Ala. — The long years have slowed the gaits that once carried them into battle, lent creaks to voices that sang with hope and righteous fury.

Don't ask for dates, because time has smudged such markers. But there remain clearings of memory as sharp and near as this morning. A snarling police dog. An abused girl's torn shirt. The cries of a white mob. The simple daring in ordering a sandwich at a lunch counter where the law says you do not belong.

Today they are called the foot soldiers of the civil rights movement. Then, they were students, fry cooks, laborers, housewives and others who filled in the battleground, namelessly, behind more celebrated leaders, such as the Revs. Martin Luther King Jr., Ralph David Abernathy and Joseph E. Lowery. They are there in the history books, waving pickets, ducking water hoses, but never with a page of their own.

Now, 40 years later, many of these foot soldiers are stepping to the foreground as part of an unusual -- and, many would say, overdue -- reunion this weekend to commemorate their role in the pivotal Birmingham campaign in April and May of 1963 to break segregation in one of its meanest redoubts.

From here and around the country, they are coming back with memories and stories -- some empowering, some traumatizing -- of the monthlong campaign that many have shared only in their own living rooms.

Among them is Carter Gaston Jr. of Birmingham, who helped guard churches involved in the rights movement and who was arrested during one of the first sit-ins at whites-only lunch counters. Michael Dizaar, traveling from Los Angeles, carries haunting memories of being set upon by a police dog as a 15-year-old high school student. Gloria Washington Lewis, who also was a student, remembers the ordeal of being held for more than two weeks at the city jail after unfurling a placard in front of City Hall.

"I never wanted to be in the spotlight. I just wanted to be an active participant. I just wanted to be a part of it," said Gaston, who is 67 and a pastor.

"There are so many foot soldiers -- from people who were in the streets and marched and cooked and did all sorts of things for the movement. They've never had an opportunity to get together," said Florence Wilson-Davis, who is directing the reunion. "People have never told their story. They've never been heard."

A group of University of Alabama-Birmingham students who have studied the foot soldiers' history has set up tents at Kelly Ingram Park -- the hub of much of the 1963 civil rights activity -- to record the remembrances of scores of people who demonstrated, prepared meals, served as drivers and guards and carried out a host of mundane functions.

The hope is to gather the accounts of participants, many now in their 60s, while they are still alive.

Michele Wilson, a sociology professor at UAB who is teaching the foot soldiers course, said she hopes the oral histories help illuminate the motives of ordinary people caught up in an extraordinary moment. "We don't have a clue about very many average folks who were for all kinds of reasons taking risks, standing up."

The Birmingham campaign pitted the evolving rights movement, led by King and others, against an unapologetic white establishment embodied by the city's police commissioner, Eugene "Bull" Connor. It was risky work. Churches already had been bombed, and there was more to come. Attacks by white segregationists were a daily threat.

Connor wielded an iron fist in trying to turn back the demonstrators -- many of them children -- by employing police dogs and high-pressure fire cannons. The horrifying images helped mobilize public opinion nationwide in favor of dismantling segregation laws and were some of the most wrenching of the civil rights era.

It was during the Birmingham campaign -- a coordinated series of sit-ins, church-sponsored rallies and street marches -- that King was arrested and where he wrote the famous "Letter from Birmingham Jail," an angry and impassioned defense of civil disobedience. "There comes a time when the cup of endurance runs over, and men are no longer willing to be plunged into the abyss of despair," King wrote.

But King was only one of hundreds of people jailed during the campaign, which was designed to attract the attention of the outside world by filling Birmingham's cells with demonstrators.

'We Did Not Move'

We repeatedly asked ourselves: "Are you able to accept blows without retaliating? Are you able to endure the ordeal of jail?" -- from King's letter.

Carter Gaston was working as a laborer at a metals plant when he signed on to help with the civil rights crusade. His father, a steelworker, had long preached the need for equal justice, whose absence was especially glaring in harshly segregated Birmingham.

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