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Trip teaches locals value of action

BIRMINGHAM, Ala. — Miah Pierce was shocked and disturbed when she saw the framed outline of what had been the front entrance to the home of one of Birmingham’s most influential movers and shakers.

“I can still see the ash and marks where they bombed (it),” said Pierce, 18, a Mahoning Valley Sojourn to the Past member.

The late Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth, the fiery minister of Bethel Baptist Church in nearby Collegeville worked tirelessly — and at great risk to his life and well-being as well as that of his family — to integrate what many historians considered America’s most segregated city in the 1950s and early 1960s.

While advocating for nonviolent direct action and continually confronting Eugene “Bull” Connor, the racist public-safety commissioner, and other city officials to end segregation, Shuttlesworth’s church was bombed three times. The first one destroyed his home when 16 sticks of dynamite were placed in a 3-foot crevice separating the residence and church where he preached from 1953 to 1961 to speak against segregation and Jim Crow laws. Shuttlesworth was thrown several feet into the air, but, against all odds, emerged uninjured.

On Sunday, Mahoning Valley Sojourn to the Past members visited Shuttlesworth’s former church and where his home next to it was to learn more about his methods of nonviolent direct action, and how the methods can be implemented today.

Instead of fleeing after the first bombing, Dec. 25, 1956, Shuttlesworth became more determined and believed that God had spared him for a reason — to continue his fight, Pierce said.

“It encouraged him to be more radical (in nonviolent ways); he was relentless, because no matter what, he kept going,” she added.

After the Christmas bombing, Shuttlesworth told about 1,500 angry protesters, many of whom were armed, to put their weapons away. He was determined to respond to the act of terrorism without violence.

He also installed guards across the street to watch the church, the Sojourn group learned.

Rylee Stanley, 17, said Shuttlesworth “had an insane streak of bravery” for pushing forward for a cause he felt was just, despite the numerous threats and physical violence against him.

“He was so relentlessly courageous,” she added.

Shuttlesworth died Oct. 5, 2011, at 89.

The group also heard Sunday from Janice Kelsey of Birmingham, who took part in the May 1963 Children’s March.

Nearly 4,000 young people were arrested over several days on charges of marching without a permit, though they marched peacefully, as they were attacked by vicious dogs and with fire hoses.

Kelsey, who spent 33 years as a science teacher, guidance counselor and principal in the local schools, was galvanized to join the movement through the teachings of the late Rev. James Bevel. He taught the children nonviolence techniques and described how racism and discrimination impacted their lives.

Racist policies in schools limited opportunities for black students, Bevel explained.

Kelsey was interested in learning to type.

“He said, ‘How many electric typewriters do you have at your school?’ I said, ‘one.”

But, the all-white Phillips High School had three rooms of electric typewriters, he told Kelsey.

“I thought, ‘Three rooms? That’s not fair,'” Kelsey said.

And, the black schools’ textbooks were outdated, she said.

After training them in nonviolent resistance, Bevel sent out 50 children at a time from the church, all of whom planned to be arrested, but were told to provide only their names and ages to protect their families from possible reprisals. Nearly 1,000 were jailed the first day of the protests.

Kelsey spent four days in jail, three at the state fairgrounds. Upon her release, she discovered the Birmingham Board of Education was to expel all students who had been arrested. But, a district court in Atlanta blocked the decision, Kelsey explained.

She also learned about the Sept. 15, 1963, bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church, which killed Cynthia Wesley, whom she had befriended, as well as Addie Mae Collins, Denise McNair and Carole Robertson, all ages 11 or 14. For years, she was unable to talk about the tragedy, said Kelsey, adding she fears that we are “going back to where we were” regarding race relations.

Pierce said learning about Kelsey and Shuttlesworth taught her that people should not allow fear to stop them from standing up for what is right.

“Even if you are scared, do it scared,” she added. “Have faith that you are doing the right thing.”

Mahoning Valley Sojourn to the Past takes local high school students on immersive trips to historical sites in the South important to the civil rights movement, while teaching them about social and racial justice and civic responsibility.

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