Explorations in Black Leadership

Co-Directed by Phyllis Leffler & Julian Bond

Foundational Experiences: Birmingham Children’s Crusade

BOND: What about other non-academic occasions where you had a chance to say, “I can do this. Other people will pay attention and follow me”?

HRABOWSKI: That’s the first really big one, and the changing experience, no doubt, no doubt, was when Dr. King and others came to Birmingham and when he asked the children to go to jail and when I wanted to go from the beginning. Because Mother and Daddy had me at the Alabama Christian Movement meetings every night. I didn’t want to be there. What kid wants to be there? So I’d be in the back of the room, as I’ve told before, doing math and studying, and -- but you hear people talking and you can’t help but listen after a while and you like the song, so you’re doing your math and [sings], “Ain’t gonna let nobody,” you’re singing along with it. You’re -- you’re just in it without even knowing. It’s like people doing the rap stuff, you know, if it’s good, it’s good. If it’s bad, using the bad language, it becomes a part of you. Well, all of that was a part of me so when he said he wanted the children to go, why, we’d been here every day. We’d been listening to it so why can’t I go? Because they said I couldn’t.

BOND: Your parents said you couldn’t? I’m sure they did.

HRABOWSKI: Oh, after the first day. It’s only now in recent years that I’ve thought back on it and really understood and I thought to myself, now, would I have let my son go. You’re trusting your child to be in that jailhouse with white people who don’t like you anyway and don't -- certainly don’t like your children, so that was what they were thinking about more so than the fact that employers had told -- the Board of Education had made it very clear that people would lose their jobs. They had those rumors go out, you know, you’re going to lose your job if your child goes to jail, so they were talking about it but more important than their jobs, I was their prized asset. Me. The child. And their point was that I couldn’t go and it was, and I told you before, but I really did call them hypocrites. Now, you know, at that time, you really don’t do that. You do not disrespect your mama, especially your daddy, though, you know, 'cause Mama could be a little more lenient when Daddy in the wrong, but you don’t do your daddy. And they were not pleased and told me to go to my room, go to bed, and I did and it was early the next morning that they came in after spending a sleepless night and told me I could go. They did.

So I did go and scared as I could be there, of course, and that experience taught me that you really don’t have to be traditionally courageous to do something that has some meaning, because I was not courageous. I wanted to be helpful because I wanted better schools. And I wanted to be able to drink out of the water fountain and go to the bathroom and all the basic stuff and go to Kiddyland, you know -- and not be seen as second class. I knew that. I knew how they thought about colored children. And so the point is that I did go and I led my group because I was older than -- I was in a higher grade than other children, remember that.

BOND: Yeah.

HRABOWSKI: So I was a little more mature and I was going to where they were taking the kids under a certain age although I was a high school kid, you see, and I could take the children and I did and what’s interesting is that I was as nervous -- and I did lead the group and have to speak to Bull Connor who was there. I was so scared.

BOND: And what happened to your interchange with Bull Connor?

HRABOWSKI: Oh, Lord, let me tell you. My heart was pump, pump, pump. The only thing that kept us going and I’ve told this to students. I was singing those songs -- [sings] “Let nobody turn me around, turn me around.” It was just amazing and that gave you courage to keep going, but you get up there and there’s this guy with this red face -- ooh, I remember, ooh- And he said, “What do you want, little nigra?” Oooh, I’m just shaking. “Suh, suh,” as in sir, you know, “We want to kneel and pray for our freedom.” And that’s when he spat on me. Yes, he did. He [makes spitting sound] spat on me, picked me up. Just pushed me towards the paddy-wagon and they threw us all into the paddy-wagon. It was all within -- very quickly. He was so angry and he was also angry because there were people taking pictures, you see, and it was embarrassing his city and all that.

BOND: He must have had some understanding that "these children are making me angry and I can’t let children make me angry."

HRABOWSKI: Yes, and yet, you know, he was- If I were to think about it, I am sure -- this will sound odd for me to be saying. He hadn’t thought about being mean to those children. He was angry at people for setting up a situation. He was angry at the embarrassment for Birmingham. He was out of control, if I’m to look back at it, but let me say, at that time and for years, I just saw him as a terrible man, an awful -- for years, I hated him.