Gloria Washington Lewis-Randall still fighting for freedom since Birmingham’s Children’s Crusade

Gloria Washington Lewis-Randall still fighting for freedom since Birmingham’s Children’s Crusade
Gloria Washington Lewis-Randall sits with her son Al Washington at her home in March. Lewis-Randall was a teenager when she participated in the Birmingham Children’s March in 1963 and has remained active in telling her story to keep the history of the civil rights movement alive in society. (Erin Nelson / Iron City Ink)

May in downtown Birmingham always means generally warm weather, gearing up for city center events and the end of the school year. In 2022, there is a continual reawakening from the impact of the ongoing pandemic. But for Gloria Washington Lewis-Randall, May is always a reminder.

This month in 1963, she was a student at Birmingham’s Parker High School and was marching right into the middle of a big historic moment. As a part of what was to be called the Children’s Crusade, teenage Gloria Washington was a foot soldier in the Birmingham civil rights movement, and before the end of May, she would face down fire hoses and menacing police, and spend several days in jail. She was one of more than 1,000 school-age children arrested during the Birmingham marches for peacefully protesting segregation.

Fifty-nine years was a long time ago. But Lewis-Randall, who lives in Birmingham’s West End community, makes sure people don’t forget.

“I enjoy telling my stories,” she said. “Anything I can do to help someone else understand a little better where I’m coming from.”

In an era where teaching about the racial history of America is being challenged on political grounds, many are concerned that knowledge of fraught and uncomfortable subjects like the civil rights movement is under threat.

“Sadly, more and more, this history is being challenged and even erased in our culture and, right now, in our schools, through tactics like curriculum restrictions and outright book bans,” said Somil Trivedi, a senior staff attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union on the ACLU podcast At Liberty. “Truths about Black history we once considered hard but self-evident are now being erased before our eyes.

“Over 30 state legislatures across the country have introduced bills to limit the discussion of racial history in a wave prompted by the emergence of critical race theory as a subject of political fear-mongering,” Trivedi said.

But survivors of the Birmingham movement, like Lewis-Randall, are still telling their truths.

“I don’t want to forget,” she said. “These stories – after we’re gone, they just need to be recorded and remembered.”

Over the years, Lewis-Randall has appeared in all kinds of public forums to share her story, often sharing the spotlight with other surviving civil rights activists from Birmingham. She has written poetry, spoken at churches and libraries, been featured in documentary films and given interviews to the local media and national outlets like The New York Times.

Lewis-Randall is always willing to spend time with visitors interested in learning about the Birmingham civil rights movement, as demonstrated when this tour came through Kelly Ingram Park in 2016. (Nick Patterson / Iron City Ink)

Recently, Lewis-Randall took part in recording an upcoming album, with music about Birmingham made by various artists alternating with her voice talking about issues that matter to her.

The album was curated by Tim Martin, an activist with the group BhamStands, who met Lewis-Randall when he brought together foot soldiers and poets for an earlier project.

“Gloria … she’s just a caring, genuine individual, so we’ve stayed in touch,” Martin said. “I’ve always appreciated her heart. She’s always praying and loving, and all of that.”

Martin said the Birmingham-centric album features Lewis-Randall on every other track, “either detailing part of her story or on gun violence today, racism today. It might be today, or it might be related to the past.”

He said Lewis-Randall still inspires him. “She doesn’t back off, and it’s always rooted in love, for sure,” he said.

On Feb. 19, Lewis-Randall took part in the annual Black Pride Ride Caravan of Hope, sponsored by the nonprofit Brenda’s Brown Bosom Buddies, which raises awareness and provides support around patients diagnosed with breast cancer. “I talked to them about knowing your history and being familiar with it,” she said.

Before some of her activities were curtailed by the pandemic, Lewis-Randall spent more than eight years as an annual speaker at the Children’s Defense Fund event held at Alex Haley Farm in Tennessee, which includes a showing of “Mighty Times: The Children’s March,” a 2004 documentary that features Lewis-Randall among other surviving foot soldiers.

“I come on and I talk for about an hour each session. I have, like, three to four sessions a day, and I enjoy that because I get to meet so many young people who are just super intelligent. They know a lot of things.”

In 2018, Lewis-Randall appeared in an episode of Wyatt Cenac’s “Problem Areas.” The HBO show, hosted by the comedian, addressed contemporary issues, including a segment about “police apologies.” In it, Lewis-Randall touched on her part in the events that eventually led Birmingham Police Chief A.C. Roper to apologize to the community.

“In the ‘60s when I was a teenager, I participated in civil rights marches,” she told Cenac. “Since then I have continued on that road to activism.” In the episode, she talked about being turned upside down by the force of a water cannon under the command of Birmingham Public Safety Commissioner Eugene “Bull” Connor. “I am deaf in my left ear today, because (of) the water hose,” she said.

A photograph of Gloria Washington Lewis-Randall, center, is seen on the back cover of “Mighty Times: The Children’s March” documentary booklet. (Erin Nelson / Iron City Ink)

Gloria’s story

A retired schoolteacher and social worker, Lewis-Randall has told many times about how she became part of the Birmingham movement, as documented in “Birmingham Foot Soldiers: Voices from the Civil Rights Movement” (Full disclosure: The author of that book is the writer of this article).

As 15-year-old Gloria Washington, she lived in Birmingham’s Smithfield neighborhood when the 1963 demonstrations occurred.

Dr. Martin Luther King was speaking at a lot of churches, preferably Sixteenth Street Baptist Church,” she recalled in the book. “He was spellbinding. I would listen to the things he would say and I recognized all of the questions that I used to ask my mother – “Ma, why I got to sit in the back of this bus? Or why can’t I go to the zoo and ride a train? Or why can’t I go to East Lake park this evening – you know, on Sunday evenings when you’re riding after church? And she’d always say, ‘That’s just the way it is.’”

In contrast, she said, they could watch television and see that whites in the same community could enjoy lives free from the fear of harassment and the restrictions that African Americans in Birmingham faced daily. Like many of her peers, Lewis-Randall was tired of being told that she could not have equal rights.

“I wanted to make a difference. I could not understand why my parents were dead-bound on me going to college, achieving and being all I can be – and I’m a second-class citizen, probably a third-class, you know? I was being called racial slurs and spit on if I went to town, and it just bothered me,” she said. “It really caused me great pain. I still have those scars.”

The May 2, 1963, launch of the Children’s Crusade during the Birmingham Campaign of the civil rights movement saw City Commissioner Eugene “Bull” Connor authorize the arrest of young protesters, as well as crowd control with fire hoses and police dogs. (Encyclopedia of Alabama, courtesy of The Birmingham News)

She was determined to work for change.

“What encouraged me to march, in addition to me listening to Dr. King … there was a fiery young minister named James Bevel, and he was closer to our age. … We could readily relate to him,” she said.

Bevel is widely recognized as the primary voice behind the decision to send children into the fray, to do something many of their parents could not do without fear of losing their jobs.

Prominent among the marches Lewis-Randall participated in was the one on what civil rights organizers called D-Day – May 2, 1963, the first day of the Children’s Crusade.

She was among a throng of students who had skipped school, waiting near their radios to hear a signal – a certain song to be played by the popular activist disc jockey “Tall” Paul White. When she heard the song, Lewis-Randall was at home, watching her coal miner father washing his blue Cadillac.

“He said, ‘Well, it’s getting close to that time. You listening to the radio?’ I said, ‘Yes I am, sir.’ He said, ‘Well, OK. I tell you what – go back in there and put on another pair of pants, so when the water hoses and things hit you again, you won’t be able to feel as much,’” she said. “He was just looking out for me.”

Her father, she said, “was very encouraging,” but he knew he could lose his job if he was arrested in a demonstration. “He could not afford not to be able to take care of me and my mom,” she said.

Her mother, on the other hand, did not know her daughter’s plans and did not approve, she said.

Medals of honor and recognition presented to Gloria Washington Lewis-Randall over the years recognizing her as one of the foot soldiers during the civil rights movement in 1963. (Erin Nelson / Iron City Ink)

Washington and other kids from various Birmingham neighborhoods started walking toward the gathering point, which was the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church. “We came from every direction. I mean, you were meeting people on every corner,” she recalled.

At the church, organizers warmed up the crowd for the daunting task of facing resistance from the Birmingham police and fire departments. It was “like a pep rally,” she said. “That’s when you were given your instructions.”

That day, when she left the church, Lewis-Randall got a look at Bull Connor’s white tank, the armored vehicle he would sometimes bring to intimidate demonstrators. “That put fear in my heart,” she said.

Bevel’s march strategy that day involved having the students approach Birmingham City Hall from a route he hoped would be unexpected. “So my route was straight up 16th Street all the way up to 11th Avenue where that Jewish cemetery is, then we’d turn right, go to 19th Street, and then we were passing by police blockades, heading to City Hall,” she said. “Once you got to City Hall, you fell on your knees. Police would pick you up and throw you in a paddy wagon or bus or whatever, and take you to jail.”

Like many of the marchers, Lewis-Randall was carrying a sign. “My sign said, ‘We shall overcome,’” she said. She made it to City Hall, held up her sign for a moment, fell to her knees, then felt herself lifted up by two police officers and put into a paddy wagon with a group of boys, many of whom she knew from school.

In this May 3, 1963, photo, Birmingham police officers take signs from young people participating in the Children’s Crusade. This effort was part of the larger Birmingham Campaign of 1963, a widespread movement aimed at ending segregation in Alabama’s largest city. (Encyclopedia of Alabama, photograph by Ed Jones, photo courtesy of The Birmingham News)

The boys, she said, were taken to the city jail. Girls, including Lewis-Randall, were taken to juvenile detention – at first.

“But they were full. So, then I had to go to the Fairgrounds,” she said. Children taken to the Alabama State Fairgrounds were often held in makeshift cells, similar to animal pens. “But I was only there a few days,” Lewis-Randall said. “I was there, maybe, about five days.

“You even had some mothers, some parents, come out to the fence to see if they could see their children,” she said.

Lewis-Randall and others arrested during the demonstrations recounted how one or more police officers were involved in the sexual assault of a young girl who had been arrested for demonstrating. Lewis-Randall described the girl – she knew her as Janice – as attractive and traumatized. She begged the other girls to protect her and when an officer came toward her during the night, several of the incarcerated teenagers, including Lewis-Randall, managed to take the officer’s baton and fight him off, she said.

“He didn’t hurt her at all, because she was moved after that,” she said.

After that incident, Lewis-Randall also was moved – to the Jefferson County Jail.

While there, she said she was made to clean the floor with a toothbrush. When she complained of having rheumatic fever, she said the matron “told me to stay in the sweat box until my heart got better.”

Lewis-Randall said she got lost in the system, waiting for the movement organizers and supporters to come up with bail money for the children. And her move from the fairgrounds to the county jail made it difficult for her mother to find her, she said. “My mom tried for weeks to get me out. But they kept telling her, ‘We don’t have children in the county jail.’”

Lewis-Randall credits her release, almost a month later, to her mother’s boss at the then-well-known department store Tillman and Levinson. After Mrs. Washington was unable to secure her daughter’s freedom, her employer, who was white, went to the jail and requested that the child be turned over to him.

Lewis-Randall recalls her time in the county jail as nothing short of “horrendous. … It was terrible. It was belittling.”

The experience left her “leery of people. I used to have a very, very trusting spirit toward anyone,” she said. “But because of the humiliation and the pain and the hurt and the scars, I wouldn’t allow people to get close to me at all. I didn’t trust anyone. It wasn’t just toward whites. I didn’t trust anybody.”

Later in life, she found a purpose in her social work career. And she has come to view the Birmingham movement as blessed. “God took ordinary people and just made them do extraordinary things,” she said.

More to come

What’s next? For Lewis-Randall, more of the same – telling her stories whenever and wherever she can. As she sees it, the need for human rights – for freedom – is no less pressing today than it was nearly 60 years ago. For instance, voter suppression is on the rise, she said.

“You can see the same things occurring. Only difference is instead of them wearing hoods and sheets they carry briefcases and wear suits and ties, you know. But they still harbor that same bitterness and that same hatred. And I don’t want anybody’s epitaph to read that they were killed by hate,” she said.

“The struggle continues,” Lewis-Randall said.

This story originally was published by Iron City Ink.

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