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The Foot Soldiers of Justice

Times Staff Writer

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.

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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.

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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’

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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.

Gaston attended a meeting of the Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights, organized by the Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth, at Sardis Baptist Church, which like other Southern churches had become a safe haven for activism. He was inspired. “The day finally came when people would organize and fight for equal treatment and privilege,” Gaston recalled.

The group drafted letters to the city demanding an end to laws that barred blacks from downtown eateries and the whites-only waiting area at the Greyhound bus station, among a host of other places.

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Gaston, impressed with Shuttlesworth, volunteered to protect his church, Bethel Baptist Church. He served as a guard during the Monday night meetings there and at the home of a black activist who was trying to get his children into an all-white public school. In shifts, the guards stayed up all night, watching the church parsonage from a neighbor’s porch. When it got cold, they closed in the porch and paid the neighbor the cost of keeping the heat on.

He served as a volunteer guard for more than a year, a job made nerve-racking because of the constant fear of violence against Shuttlesworth.

During King’s Birmingham campaign in April 1963, Gaston signed up to join groups of blacks who would take seats at the lunch counters of white-owned stores, inviting certain arrest and possibly violence. They had been trained not to strike back if attacked, and when the time came, Gaston recalled, he felt resolute rather than afraid.

Gaston’s group of six men went to a drugstore named Allen’s, on 1st Avenue. “We went in and we just went straight to the counter and took a seat,” he said. “The gentleman who owned the store -- it was not a hidden thing about us going to the counters -- he said, ‘Oh my God, here they are.’ He said, ‘Gentlemen, you cannot be served.’

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“But we ordered,” Gaston said. “We did not move. We ordered sandwiches. We ordered coffee. They called the police. We did not move and they placed us under arrest.”

No one was beaten. Gaston was held for five days.

‘Go On, Child! Go On!’

There is nothing new about this kind of civil disobedience.... It was practiced superbly by the early Christians, who were willing to face hungry lions ... -- from King’s letter.

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Despite groups like Gaston’s, the sit-ins were disappointing for the organizers. Birmingham’s blacks were not signing up in the numbers required to fill the jails. Many feared losing their jobs or their homes. The campaign was in danger of sputtering out when the decision was made to enlist a new group: children.

Michael Dizaar, now a 55-year-old medical clerk in Los Angeles, was a student at Carver High School in Birmingham when, he said, the civil rights struggle “came off the paper and into the streets.” Dizaar had been raised by his mother, a cotton picker, to show deference to whites -- to the point of acting inferior, he said.

But as a young black man, Dizaar knew that minding your own business was no guarantee against being shot at or beaten by a car full of white men with not much else to do.

Talk was circulating about the campaign in Birmingham and the effort to get children involved. Shuttlesworth and Abernathy visited the school attended by Dizaar’s next-door neighbor. Carver High was invited, too.

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On the appointed day, he and other students got up from their desks and trooped out of their schools. Some went out the window. They marched to the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church, which would be firebombed months later in a famous attack that killed four black girls.

Dizaar recalled police cars blocking the way through downtown. He said adults lined the sidewalks, cheering the children on: “Go on, child! Go on!”

Along 19th Street, Dizaar veered from the path assigned by police. An officer, with a German shepherd in tow, grabbed him by the shirt. Dizaar said the dog lunged and tore at his trousers, a pair of leather pants he had bought at Goodwill.

Dizaar said he grabbed the officer’s wrist but held his other hand away from the dog’s flashing teeth. Dizaar said the officer, using a racial epithet, shouted at him to let go. It was a standoff, and Dizaar was focused on the dog. Finally, a police supervisor ordered Dizaar put on the bus to jail. (Dizaar asserts it was his encounter with police that was captured by a photographer and published widely over the years, but that claim is in dispute.)

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On the way to jail, Dizaar recalled, the arrestees stomped and sang a hymn: “And before I be a slave, I be buried in my grave, and go home to my Lord and be free.”

Two Weeks in Jail

When you suddenly find your tongue twisted and your speech stammering as you seek to explain to your 6-year-old daughter why she can’t go to the public amusement park that has just been advertised on television ... you will understand why we find it difficult to wait -- from King’s letter.

Gloria Washington Lewis, who was a majorette and active in her school, joined the demonstrations too. She chafed at the idea that black children were barred from the duck ponds at Eastlake, a park, and from riding the train at the zoo. Her youthful sense of justice piqued, she began attending meetings at the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church.

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On a day of planned marches, she donned two layers of clothes in case she was arrested and needed a change. She curled up her poster, on which she had written “We Shall Overcome,” and hid it inside her pants until she arrived at City Hall. There, she took the sign out, held it up and, like hundreds of other young people, promptly was arrested.

Many children were held in tents at the state fairgrounds. Washington Lewis, now a 55-year-old social worker in Birmingham, recalled watching a girl brought in screaming and with torn clothing. She had been sexually abused by the police, Washington Lewis said. She gave the girl her extra shirt.

Later, when a police officer arrived to get the girl, Washington Lewis and girls in the neighboring cots assumed the worst: The pretty girl was about to be victimized again. Four girls, including Washington Lewis, jumped on the officer. They may have prevented an assault, she said, but they landed in the city jail for their troubles.

Washington Lewis said she spent more than two weeks in the lockup, much of it in a windowless cell called the “sweat box.” She had just turned 15.

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The ‘Real Heroes’

The dramatic children’s marches brought activists flocking to Birmingham and focused the attention of the Kennedy administration.

In the end, after a month of turmoil and at least 4,000 arrests, the rights activists wrested an agreement that promised to end segregated restrooms, water fountains and lunch counters in Birmingham. The campaign, ruled a success, helped propel efforts for federal civil rights protections.

Four decades later, the foot soldiers express pride in what they did.

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Gaston says the world is “some better” as a result, though inequalities remain. Washington Lewis smiles at what mere children accomplished. Dizaar sometimes stews that today’s youth don’t appreciate the sacrifices of their elders.

“I went out there because I was willing to lay down my life,” Dizaar said Thursday at Kelly Ingram Park, where statues depict scenes of the street protests, including the snarling police dogs.

Only after the demonstrations ended did King’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail” become widely publicized. In it, he labeled as “real heroes” those who many years later would be known as foot soldiers.

“One day,” King wrote, “the South will know that when these disinherited children of God sat down at lunch counters, they were in reality standing up for the best in the American dream ... “

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