The Unintentional Protestor

25 Apr
Casey regards the statues honoring participants in the Children's March, of which he was one.

Casey regards the statues honoring participants in the Children’s March, of which he was one.

Clifton Casey and I walk across the grass of Kelly Ingram Park, toward a sculpture he can identify with – one commemorating the Children’s March, a key event in the civil rights protests here in 1963.

A sidewalk bisects the sculpture, sandwiching the pedestrian between, on one side, statues of a boy and girl elevated on steps, and, on the other, the barred window of a jail cell on the other. Step around onto the grass, you see the children as if behind the bars of the jail cell.

Casey has helped pick out the spot – but now that we’re standing outside the metaphorical cell, he asks to be photographed looking at the children from inside the cell, no bars in sight.

“Sorry,” he says. “I don’t like standing next to those bars.”

Normally I wouldn’t be surprised at this. Then again, normally, I wouldn’t have suggested this sculpture as a place to pose. Casey, after all, spent nine days in jail after participating in the first day of the Children’s March.

So why am I slight surprised? Because, for the last hour, Casey has done everything in his rhetorical power to convince me that what he did was no big thing. That, to me, is a staggering achievement of humility, even if Casey’s own humility wouldn’t allow him to say that, either. For nine years I worked at a newspaper down the road in Montgomery, another legendary civil rights community. That was more than two decades ago, so even more people from the movement were alive and willing to tell their stories.

They are in a sense the uber-volunteers, the ones who got to be a part of something that made a dramatic difference in the world – to the point that many of us envy that opportunity, if not their hardships. Yet, many of them go out of their way to deflect any and all praise for their role.

I tell him people must want to romanticize his role, projecting upon him every imagined trait of an inspirational protestor.

“No, I don’t allow this,” he said emphatically. “I was just one of a much bigger number. Emmett Till, Medgar Evers, all those others, they were the heroes. I was just sitting in jail with all my high school friends. I had three cousins in the same cell as me.”

Casey’s also relentlessly honest about another aspect of his participation – while the protestors were clearly in the right, his own actions are more morally ambiguous.

The problem was simple. Not only had he flatly disobeyed his mother’s orders “not to go down there and get mixed up that,” but he’d done it for no better reason than the reason most high school kids do things – because his friends were doing it. At Carver High School that fateful day, “Teachers did not encourage us, which they could not do under thereat of being terminated, but didn’t make no large effort to discourage us either.” So Casey went with his friends down to 16th Street Baptist Church – perhaps a hundred yards from where we took our photo. Did he know he was going to be marching? “To be honest, I had no idea. I got to church and there was an orientation, and it became clear what I was becoming involved in. Then I started thinking, ‘what are my parents going to say?’ I was more concerned about that than going to jail that day.”

Two or three blocks into the march, the police stopped the children, led by infamous Bull Connor, Commissioner of Public Safety during the movement.  “Bull Connor came up and said, ‘Get them into the paddy wagons,’ and they hauled us to jail. It was only three or four blocks.”

Water cannon sculpture depicts what children faced on the second day of the march.

Water cannon sculpture depicts what children faced on the second day of the march.

By being in the early waves of the first march, Casey avoided being threatened by the police dogs or sprayed with the fire hoses, which escalated the second day the children marched. But it was Casey and his peers filling the jail to overflowing that helped set the stage for the disturbing images that helped turn the tide nationally. Meanwhile, while Casey sees his actions as lacking intentionality, he extended his jail stay because of a profound act of conscience. Back at the church, organizers had told the children that their parents would be fired from their jobs if they allowed their kids to participate in the protests; already worried about having defied his parents, he wasn’t going to multiply his transgressions by revealing his identity. He said “no comment” when interrogators asked his name; hence when parents could not determine if their children were in jail.

Nevertheless, his mother was sure, if only because someone saw him being hustled into the paddy wagon on footage. Ironically, his mother – actually his half-sister, who raised Casey and his siblings after their parents died when he was six – was up in Cincinnati, closing the deal on a house, determined to get the kids to safety after a bomb went off at a neighborhood church. She hopped on the next train and headed south to find her adoptive son.

“Looking back, I know now she was petrified,” he said. “Thinking about it now, I just feel sorry for her that I put her through that.”

As it turned out, when he was released and found a ride home, she only asked if they had harmed him. “And then we never talked about it. I mean that was the only time I actually defied her. And thinking back now, being black in Birmingham, Alabama, in those days, a lot of people went intro jail and never came out.”

However, she did give permission for him to take a train for the demonstration in Washington, when King gave his famous “I Have A Dream” speech to the thousands on the Mall. He then had to decide; a relative was more enthusiastic than him, since he was the one who had done jail time. But finally he went.

Since part of my job back in Massachusetts is requiring students who have chosen Community Service Learning courses to go out into the community, I’ve seen my share of less than enthused “volunteers” going out into the world. Of course, Casey did make a choice, but if one believes his depiction of his teenage self, he wasn’t particularly passionate about it. The hope is that even in those with mixed feelings, seeds are planted that sprout later in life.

That was true for Casey, although in an ironic fashion. Being in jail once was quite enough for him, so he tended to stay out of trouble, even when friends seemed determined to find some.

But he also came to be proud he was part of something so important, something that helped change so much. “I guess what we did was effective, that it did serve its purpose, but I was just one of much larger numbers. But it took those numbers to create the change that happened.”

Casey knows his numbers: After his military career, including serving in Vietnam, he became an accountant. In fact, I couldn’t interview him two days ago – when I was passing through Birmingham originally – because that was April 15th: Even now, he volunteers his accounting skills to the United Way, helping roughly 50 lower-income folks file their returns. This, on top of his frequently speaking engagements here at Birmingham Civil Rights Institute.

Casey’s past seems to make his appearances at the Institute a no-brainer; the BCRI volunteer coordinator, Yvonne Williams, told me that their many volunteer docents work at BCRI precisely because they lived through that time. “They believe in what happened here and what it achieved, and think it’s important.”

Yet for those same people, that very act means overcoming some lingering trauma. Even for me, a generation younger, the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute is a deeply emotional experience: After a short film gives some deeper context, the screen lifts and walls part to reveal black and white facilities; visitors find their way through exhibit about exhibit about the separation of races, the collision of hate and love, moral depravity and profound courage. One absorbs the voice of Martin Luther King, but also the voice of George Wallace.

“I can walk through galleries now easier than could before… but certain things … I can remember when those girls got killed like it was yesterday. I was on a ladder at my aunt’s house, putting up drapes for her and I had a little transistor radio, and I heard a bomb had gone off at 16th Street Baptist, and someone came running down the street and said ‘they killed all the kids.’”

Still, Casey keeps volunteering.

“I’m on a fixed income now, so I can’t donate as much, but I can help in other ways. You know, it just makes me feel good to help people. I’d rather give a dollar to you than take a dollar from you.”

A good trait to have in an accountant. And one of the few times Casey acknowledges any virtue in anything he’s done, from the volunteer work he does now (he’s quick to remind me he’s not a regular docent) to the decision he made, however impulsively, to march alongside his friends against forces that, deep down, they knew enough to fear.

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