Documenting the American South Logo
oral histories of the American South
Excerpt from Oral History Interview with Mary Moore, August 17, 2006. Interview U-0193. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) See Entire Interview >>

Student civil rights activism in Birmingham, Alabama, in the mid-1960s

Moore describes her participation in civil rights marches in Birmingham, Alabama, during the mid-1960s. Moore was a student at Carver High School and she argues that students were important activists in the campaign for school desegregation. Moore begins by describing a meeting held at the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church, where Martin Luther King Jr. called on the children of the community to become actively involved in the civil rights movement. In addition to describing the actions of the student activists and the challenges they faced, she describes how her parents felt about their children's role in the movement.

Citing this Excerpt

Oral History Interview with Mary Moore, August 17, 2006. Interview U-0193. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) in the Southern Oral History Program Collection, Southern Historical Collection, Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Full Text of the Excerpt

SARAH THUESEN:
Were your parents involved in—?
MARY MOORE:
During that time most of our parents were afraid. The rationale was that when their bosses learned that they were participating with the Movement, then they were fired. In many cases the parents would encourage the children to go to the Movement. You had some, quite a few like the ministers. In that time it was no danger for many of the ministers because they got their basic pay from their congregation. They didn't have to experience the threat of being fired because their living was paid for by their congregation. You had a lot of ministers that was active in the Movement then. Young people. A lot of people that was just brave people during the time and were going to defy the segregation, the segregated structure regardless. There were many of us at night, after school we walked from one side of this city to the other trying to get to a Movement meeting. Then once the decision was made by Dr. King that it would be better to use children to take the Movement to the next step—and I always remember that night. Because after the decision was made—usually when we would go to the movement meeting adults were the ones to sit down—children stood up around the walls, in the balconies of the church. On that particular night Dr. King asked the adults, "Why don't you step back and let the children come forth?" His message that night was to the children.
SARAH THUESEN:
You were present at that meeting?
MARY MOORE:
That was at Sixteenth Street Baptist Church. We were always in the balcony, I mean, a proud moment. Here it is Dr. King telling the grown people step back and let the children come forth because his message was for us. He preached that night about our role and how it relates back to biblical times when things were hard, in many cases, children were used in order to propel the spiritual message that got out then. That was, to me, a proud moment. After he finished talking to us that night they divided us up according to where we lived. I lived in North Birmingham so they had selected—. I lived in North Birmingham plus I went to Carver High School. The major schools that they could draw children from at that time was Carver High School on the north side, Parker High School in the center, Ullman High School on the south side. Then they pulled from children from Fairfield and surrounding cities. Miles College is located in Fairfield. So students came in from Miles College. That night he explained to us that the night before we were supposed to leave school that we met at one of the churches close to the school. We met at St. Luke AME Methodist Church. During that particular meeting they gave us our signal. At that time I think Julian Bond was a young man that was probably at Howard University at that time. Several other ones was out and they explained to us when the people on the back side of the school saw these people out on the campus you know that that's going to be the signal for you to get your classmates and leave the school. Many of your teachers, they were threatened also by the board. In many cases the teachers would even open up a book and start reading—I don't see what's going on. We quietly got up, left the school, proceeded to downtown Birmingham and, mind you, it was already determined that some children would be arrested. That was already decided that some would be arrested; some would just keep the marches going. Once we left school and got downtown Birmingham, during that time, they told us the students from Parker High School weren't leaving. You have to understand what was happening with Parker High School because that was where most of the elitist children went to school. I think they had some with second thoughts. If they were identified as marching then what will happen to their parents who were the teachers and the business professional people in the city. They divided us up at that point and asked some children to go to Parker High School because the adults knew they couldn't go in. The children could go in and rally them to come on out, which we did. Some went to Parker. Some proceeded on to Sixteenth Street Baptist Church to start the marches. They had a list of all the children that would potentially be arrested once we got to the park. Some of us, only thing we did everyday was go and keep the marches going. People like my brother got arrested two or three times.
SARAH THUESEN:
What's his name?
MARY MOORE:
His name was Rayfield Moore. Several members of our football team, my brother Rayfield, Clarence Byrd, and there was another young man that was killed during the Vietnam and his name is—that was killed—I always could see his face, never can remember his name. I know he was one of the football players because most of them had committed that they would be arrested. Part of the thing that they were looking at was that you needed enough young men to be arrested because there was uncertainty as to what would happen to the young ladies. They were going in for a two fold purpose because of the movement and also to look out for the young ladies once they were arrested. They herded them all on buses and hurried them to various places in the city. Used to be called, it's still called the Fairground where they housed a lot of the children. That was during '63. We got through that faze and went on eventually to integrate the schools. Later on after I finished high school in '66 they more or less stepped up the integration process after then. Like my younger brothers, they decided that even though they had been zoned for Carver High School for years, but we lived close to Phillips High School, so many of the children would have to go to Phillips. Then, when it got to point that some of the children didn't want to go, they started giving children options. The ones that want to go can. The ones that don't want to go you can go back to whichever high school you normally would have attended.
SARAH THUESEN:
You graduated from Carver in '66, right?
MARY MOORE:
'66.
SARAH THUESEN:
Were you ever arrested?
MARY MOORE:
Never arrested, thank god. My mother always told us we could march as long as we wanted to, me and my sister. But because of her lack of trust of the law enforcement at that point in time, she told us we could march all day. My brother could be arrested because he was a boy. She just was never certain as to what could possibly happen to a young lady. We marched and marched and marched and marched everyday. Just like we were going to work until the marches were called off. Every day we got up, went to the church, got out there and marched, ran from the policemen, look around the corner to see if we see Bull Connor and his white tank. Once we could get past, then zoom back into the park we go. When the police started chasing us we'd run them and run to some place of safety to hide out. Once they would give up we'd come out and run right back into the park again. It was a lot. The thing is to have lived through that time, during the time when they put the dogs on children and to know your friends—. I met a young lady while I was campaigning; I met a lady this year. She was telling me, "Yeah, I was in that park." She was hit by the hose in her chest. She said, "I never recovered because the pressure of that hose on my chest has resulted in a lot of medical problems." It was a dangerous time but I could see where Dr. King was coming from. It's like today, children think they going to live forever, nothing can hurt us because we are children. We're strong. We've been promised life. We are fearless. I think that if it had not happened like that some of the changes that occurred in this country and even around the world would not have taken place, if it had not been for children.
SARAH THUESEN:
I'm sure your parents must have been really worried about you at this time. What did they do?
MARY MOORE:
I think most parents during that time—you have to realize the black community during those days, highly religious. Their thought process was that God was going to protect us anyway. That we were doing something that was to help everybody. They felt certain at the end of the day, we were going to return home and get up another day and start all over again. I don't think the fear was there even with parents. With them and their religious background, this is something that had been ordained by God to be done. Dr. King was his messenger to get it done. Dr. King said this is the way we'll have to do it, through peaceful protests, then that was the way it was going to be. No parent thought that their child was going to go out and be hurt. Even when they brought out the dogs and the hose pipes, it still didn't affect them that way because through them they believe we'll continue to pray. This is what we've got to go through.