‘A powerful and frightening experience:' UMBC’s Hrabowski recalls King's call for the Children’s Crusade of 1963

It was a weeknight in Birmingham, Ala., and 12-year-old Freeman A. Hrabowski III didn’t want to go to church. But his parents insisted he hear a visiting minister.

Hrabowski sat in the back, working on math problems and eating M&Ms.

“All of a sudden, I hear this gentleman say, ‘If the children participate in this peaceful protest, all of America will understand that even our babies know the difference between right and wrong,’ ” Hrabowski recalled.

It was 1963, and the guest speaker was the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.

That May, Hrabowski — who has led the University of Maryland, Baltimore County as president for more than 25 years — was among the youth in his native Birmingham who faced great risk to take part in the Children’s Crusade.

Authorities used police dogs and fire hoses on the young protesters, and images of the violence captured the nation’s attention. Hrabowski was among the hundreds of children arrested. He spent five days in a juvenile detention facility, where he said “we were treated like animals.”

“It was a powerful experience, a frightening experience,” said Hrabowski, 67. “It was the first time I understood that I, as even a child … had the opportunity to have an impact on my own future.”

Hrabowski shared his memories of the march with The Baltimore Sun for Martin Luther King Jr. Day. April 4 this year will mark the 50th anniversary of King’s assassination.

In 1963, Hrabowski was already a ninth-grader, having skipped grades. As a student in segregated Birmingham, he was given textbooks that had been discarded by white schools.

He wondered what life was like for white children.

“I never saw anybody white,” he said. “I never talked to anybody white.”

Calling on children to protest was a controversial tactic. At first, he said, Hrabowski’s parents refused to let him go. Then they prayed about it, and changed their minds.

Hrabowski and the other young participants were trained at church in methods of nonviolent protest. They were instructed to carry themselves with great discipline, and to not let themselves be provoked by the police.

On May 2 and the next several days, they marched.

When Hrabowski reached City Hall, he encountered Birmingham’s notorious public safety commissioner, Eugene “Bull” Connor. A staunch defender of segregation, Connor had allowed the Ku Klux Klan to beat visiting Freedom Riders, civil rights activists who traveled in racially mixed groups to integrate interstate buses and terminals — and blamed the Freedom Riders for the violence.

“I was so scared,” Hrabowski said.

He said Connor spat in his face. Then Hrabowski and other children were placed under arrest.

Hrabowski didn’t speak publicly about the incident until the 1997 Spike Lee film “4 Little Girls” about the Ku Klux Klan bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham later in 1963.

“For years, I would talk about the movement as a child leader,” he said. “But not these details, because it was too painful.”

King visited the children while they were locked up.

“He said when we were in jail, ‘What you do this day will have an impact on children not yet born,’ ” Hrabowski remembered.

The march and its aftermath were among several defining events that year for Hrabowski. The church was bombed in September; the four girls killed included his classmate Cynthia Wesley, 14. Two months later came the assassination of President John F. Kennedy — another devastating blow to young people, he said.

Hrabowski called himself “a nerdy little kid.” His parents emphasized learning and faith. In their middle-class community, many of his peers’ parents were teachers, like his. His father later worked in a steel mill, where he made more money.

“What they reminded me of was that I was more fortunate than most,“ he said. “I was more privileged than children who were growing up in Birmingham in the projects.”

Hrabowski has written about his experience in the civil rights movement in his 2015 book, “Holding Fast to Dreams: Empowering Youth from the Civil Rights Crusade to STEM Achievement.”

He calls nationwide advances in educational attainment over his lifetime a “stunning change.” Between 1960 and 2015, the Census reports, the proportion of Americans with a bachelor’s degree grew from 8 percent to 33 percent.

But the percentages are lower for blacks and Hispanics, and Hrabowski remains troubled by persistent disparities among races and economic groups in health, education and the criminal justice system.

“Yes, there’s been progress,” Hrabowski said. “If you’ve not been around, you don’t know it. But some of us are profiting more than others. … For that child who is in an inner city or in a poor rural area who is hungry or who is not learning to read, there’s no progress to be seen yet.”

He said he draws inspiration from the UMBC student body.

“What gives me hope is that so many of my students of all races are devastated when they see signs that our country is not respecting the truth, or signs that we’re not respecting other people,” he said. “They’re upset about seeing leaders who lie. They’re upset about people abusing women.”

For this year’s King holiday, Hrabowski has been invited to deliver a keynote address at an observance at the University of Missouri-St. Louis.

Hrabowski said he was shaped from a young age by the importance King placed on better education for black children. Today, the UMBC president is widely regarded as a trailblazer in improving science and math education for minorities.

“Education really does make a difference,” he said. “Because when you’re educated, you understand civic responsibility.”

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