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Last Updated: Saturday, 3 May, 2003, 00:56 GMT 01:56 UK
Civil rights activists recall key battle

By Steve Schifferes
BBC News Online, Washington

Birmingham, Alabama, May 1963
Police used water cannon on civil rights demonstrators

As activists gather in Birmingham, Alabama, 40 years after the climatic battle of the civil rights era, the Supreme Court is set to decide several key cases that could reverse court support for their cause.

Thousands of people are gathering in the Deep South city this weekend to remember their role in one of the most dramatic battles of the civil rights movements.

For several weeks in May and June 1963, thousands of school children filled the streets, demonstrating against racial segregation and demanding an end to "Jim Crow" laws.

We knew the goal was to fill the jails, and show we meant business, and then things would change for the city, for blacks, and for my parents
Claressie Berry Hardy, civil rights protester (age 13 in 1963)

The police chief of Birmingham, "Bull" Connor, responded with dogs and fire hoses as well as mass arrests of the children.

The disturbing images, which were televised around the world, eventually led to the passage of the Civil Rights Act in 1964.

And the non-violent protesters, led by Martin Luther King, Jr, won a partial victory, desegregating shops and parks in the most segregated city in the south.

But that victory turned to tragedy several months later, when the Ku Klux Klan bombed the 16th Street Baptist Church, killing four young black children.

Many events in the reunion will be held in the Kelly Ingram Park, across the street from that church.

Re-union for 'foot soldiers'

Among those taking part will be Reverend Fred Shuttlesworth, the preacher who invited Dr King to Birmingham to lead the protests, and the Reverend James Bevel, who helped recruit the children who took part.

Martin Luther King: I have a dream speech, Washington DC August 1963
Martin Luther King led the protests

Another leading activist, the Reverend C T Vivian, told the Atlanta Constitution newspaper that the local activists, known as "foot soldiers", had never been recognised.

"They have not been given their proper due," he said.

"Nobody knows about them, but we all know about each other. We know how important they are."

Many of the young people who took part have stayed in Birmingham, and still have vivid memories of the events.

Claressie Berry Hardy, who was 13-years-old during the protests, told the New York Times that she had been eager to go to jail.

"I was so excited .. we knew the goal was to fill the jails, and show we meant business, and then things would change for the city, for blacks, and for my parents."

Her sister remembers the cheers that greeted them when they returned from jail to their neighbourhood.

The city of Birmingham, Alabama, which now has a black mayor and civil rights statues in the park where the clashes took place, has been much changed by the events of 1963.

But the broader civil rights movement is currently trying to recover that spirit of idealism.

Supreme Court reverses course

And one its most important allies, the Supreme Court, may be turning against it.

It was the 1954 Supreme Court decision, Brown v Board of Education, which first forced southern states to desegregate their schools.

In the next few weeks, the Supreme Court will decide whether universities can take race into account when deciding on admissions - a practice which is now also opposed by the Bush administration.

The University of Michigan affirmative action case could spell the end of any formal attempt to increase the number of black students studying at elite universities or going on to study law or medicine.

Civil rights activists, who came out in force to demonstrate when the case was being heard, believe it could mark a watershed in the struggle against discrimination in housing, employment, and education.

In other cases this term, an increasingly conservative Court has upheld long jail sentences for repeat offenders and the detention of immigrants accused of crimes.

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The end of the civil rights era
02 Apr 03  |  Americas

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