Best Documentary -- Alabama Public Radio "Civil Rights Radio"

May 5, 2014

"Civil Rights Radio"

2013 afforded a singular opportunity to examine the fiftieth anniversary of key events related to the civil rights movement in Alabama. 1963 was marked by the “stand in the school house door” in Tuscaloosa and the bombing at the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham. However, one demonstration that set the tone for 1963 became known as the “children’s march.” That protest was rendered iconic by black and white news footage of teenaged Negro demonstrators being met with fire hoses and police dogs. Less known is the role of black radio disc jockeys in signaling the students to leave class and protest. The 1963 children’s march gave U.S. television audiences their first view of racial unrest in the South.

APR sought to give life to this event through our documentary “Civil Rights Radio.” The challenge for this particular production was the near total absence of recorded sound from that time. Air check recordings of the Birmingham disc jockeys who signaled the young demonstrators to action were erased or lost in a fire in the mid 1960’s. Even the news footage of the police response with fire hoses and attack dogs was shot without a soundtrack.

Six months of research with the Birmingham Radio History Museum, the archives of the Universities of Alabama and Georgia, and the Birmingham Record Collectors Club uncovered what traces of sound that had survived. Also, the young marchers, now in their sixties, were asked during their interviews to reenact their favorite childhood memories of radio personalities like Shelley “The Playboy” Stuart.

The result is a vivid portrait of youthful activism which helped set the stage for passage of the Civil Rights Act in 1964.

“Civil Right Radio” is respectfully submitted for your kind consideration.

James Stewart: For me, it was just a day of resolve and resolution, and I said ‘sign me up.”

Eloise Gaffney: Well, the first thing I tell them is that I went to jail, and they go ‘Oooh, Grandmama,” and I say well, let me explain…

Washington Booker: It was just…you knew God was on your side. And we knew that it didn’t matter what we were facing. You knew if God was on your side, you’d overcome it.

Pat Duggins: James Stewart, Eloise Gaffney, and Washington Booker are all in their early sixties. They’re all from Birmingham. They’re all African American. And fifty years ago, they made national news..

CBS Radio report fade up… Anncr: American Airlines presents Douglas Edwards with the late news…. Edwards: In Birmingham, Alabama, the civil rights demonstrators became wholesale today, and police arrested four hundred fifty Negro schoolchildren who played hooky to parade and picket and pray….

Report fades down Pat Duggins: on May 2, 1963, Stewart, Gaffney, and Booker were among the teenagers who took part in what became known as the “children’s march.” It was a protest against segregation in Birmingham. If you ever saw the film footage of Negro protesters being me with fire hoses and police dogs, that’s it.

CBS fades back up… Edwards: Police loaded some of the children onto school buses, arrested among them a six year old girl. The Reverend Fred Shuttles worth says the protests will go until we run out of children.”

Music “It’s Alright up” fades up

Pat: Back then, these kids were just kids. Thousands of them were inspired by civil rights leaders like the Reverend Fred Shuttles worth, James Beville, and of course Dr. Martin Luther King, Junior. But, there were other voices too…

Music “It’s Alright” fades back up, then down

“In 1963, songs by Curtis Mayfield and the Impressions were playing on local radio stations. Fats Domino and Little Willie Littlefield had hits as well. If kids in 1963 Birmingham wanted to hear this music, there was one place to go…

Shelley “The Playboy” promo fades up…..then fades down…

Shelley: “I was a broadcaster. And, my audience was what I would call…a vast audience of black and white people.”

Pat: Shelley Stewart is also from Birmingham. This radio show recording you’re hearing is old. It’s from 1985. But Shelley’s career goes back even farther than that, to the late 1950’s and early 60’s. Tapes from that time are hard to find. But, the kids remember. Before the 1963 “children’s march,” Washington Booker remembers Shelley as “The Playboy.”

Booker: Now, how it got that name, I do not know. That is probably an interesting story, but I do not know. He’d call people up like ‘baby Jones in Ensley, you up? you up? You need to get up.’ And, a few minutes Mrs. Jones will call up and say ‘Shelley, what are you doing getting people up at 5 o’clock.”

Gaffney: He did R and B… Pat: Eloise Gaffney. Gaffey: But, he had…he had one saying that went ‘Timber! Let it fall!’ Something like that. And, I think that was…I know that was one of the signals.

Pat: The school students who took part in the children’s march talk about these signals a lot. James Stewart…

Stewart: On the radio, Shelley made an announcement that we’re playing this song, and all of us knew that meant this was going to be a day of activity. Even the kids who didn’t go to the meetings. We ran into them every day.

Pat: Just don’t Shelley Stewart about that…

Shelley: Let me know at the start of this conversation that I have never been a civil rights activist of any kind. I want to make that perfectly clear.

Pat: The students who took place in the children’s march might argue that point. And, even Shelley admits he knew firsthand what school kids, both black and white, could do in the race of racism. He learned that from his other job. In 1963, being a disc jockey paid about fifteen dollars a week. So, Shelley moonlighted. He did sock hops. That’s where teenagers would show up at a nightclub or gymnasium, pay a quarter, take off their shoes, and dance while he played records. In 1960, that was what was going on at a Birmingham hot spot called Don’s Teen Town.

Shelley: About eight hundred kids there that night to witness the performance of “Shelley.” And the Ku Klux Klan showed up that night, and they demanded that the owner of the club, Ray Mahoney, send me out. They said they were going to kill him. The kids became very disturbed, they bolted out of the door and jumped on the Ku Klux. The Birmingham News the next day talked about a racial protest…it was no protest. Those kids, who were all white, jumped on the Ku Klux and gave me an opportunity to get away…

Pat: That was in 1960. But, 1963 the stage was set for Shelley the Playboy and the Children’s March. Segregation in Alabama had reached a tipping point…

FX fade up…. Anncr. WBRC Birmingham, Robert T. Shlenker general manager, is please to have originated the live telecast of the inauguration of Alabama Governor George C. Wallace on January 16, 1963. We take you now to Montgomery…

Fade up Fx of inaugural parade, oath ceremony, fade to inaugural address…

Wallace: In the name of the greatest people who have ever trod this Earth, I draw the line in the dust, and throw down the gauntlet before the feet of tyranny, and I saw segregation now, segregation tomorrow, and segregation forever…. (cheers from crowd)

Gaffney: It was mean, and we lived through it. Pat: Eloise Gaffney. Gaffney: And when I tell my kids, they just, they don’t….my children have a hard time believing. And for my grandchildren, it’s really far-fetched. When I say I couldn’t go to Fairpark. You had to go past by Fairpark and see the children playing, and a child asks ‘why can’t I go there?’ And, I’m sure parents then had a hard time answering questions like that.

Stewart: My mother….when I was very young, my mother took me to town to the one of stores…

Pat: James Stewart.

Stewart: I had found out, by this time, that the tall water fountains had cold water, and the one next to it, the porcelain white basin types, had warm water. There was stool in front of the tall one, so I got up on the stool to get a drink water, a drink of cold water, and my mother just came out of nowhere saying ‘noooo!” And, she swept me away. And at that point, she started telling me what I could and couldn’t do. And these rules were hard to comprehend. Because you had what’s wrong, what’s right, and what’s ‘white.’

Pat: Washington Booker.

Booker: I can remember seeing some kid with a banana split….some white kid sitting at the counter with this big ole banana split. And, I mean…I don’t know. I had nothing to compare it to, how it looked. It was just a marvelous thing, and I wanted one. I wanted to sit at that counter and eat one. And, I always thought about that during the marches. When we were demonstrating, I was thinking about that. Yeah, I want to be able to sit at that lunch counter, so I can order me one of those banana split. It seems trivial, but it was part of the way you saw the world.

Fade up Martin Luther King...

King: You are saying that segregation is still the Negro’s burden and America’s shame…

Pat: Civil rights leaders met with supporters two to three times a week in Birmingham. Teenagers sat in as well to hear, from among others, Dr. Martin Luther King. While the desegregation effort has its champions, the other side did too.

Fade up Bull Connor

Connor: You will never whip these birds unless you keep you and them separate. That’s what I learned in Birmingham…

Pat: That’s Bull Connor.

Connor: You got to keep the blacks and the whites separate! Just like you got to keep them in schools! Don’t go round that university, let the law enforcement agencies…that’s you got em hired for.

Pat: Having Bull Connor speak in favor of segregation was a problem. He was Commissioner of Public Safety in Birmingham. That meant he was in charge of the police department.

James Stewart… Stewart: We lived in an atmosphere of terror all the time. We never knew when a bomb was going to go off in our community. We never knew when a policeman was going to harass us. And policemen, in those days, would ride up and call you to the car. And they had the German shepherds in the back, and they were snarling and trying to get at you. And the back window was rolled down to the point where they stick their head out. And the policemen would call you over and try to intimidate you…

Pat: Washington Booker.

Booker: I remember their favorite thing, I never forget, was to make you stick your head in the window, and they’d roll the window up to right here. And, then they’d tease you, hit you on the head with a stick, anything they wanted to do to you. And, I think, to this day, we have this last remnants of that kind of distrust and hate.

Pat: Eloise Gaffney.

Gaffney: And I’ll tell you something else, when they use to bomb Arthur Shores house, I lived one block behind him.

Pat: Arthur Shores was a black civil rights attorney. His house was bombed. Twice.

Gaffney: So, it seem like it happened every Tuesday. We be in the house doing homework, and ‘boom!’ there it goes. It was forceful enough to knock us out of our chairs. And, just to show you how young we were, we were so young, we weren’t fearful. We would get out and go to his house. We knew that’s where it happened. We would all go to where the bombing happened. And the police….oh they were brutal. They had the rifles at that time, with the bayonet on the end of it. And, they’d just go around sticking people. Oh, yeah.

Pat: Teenagers like Stewart, Gaffney and Booker saw police intimidation for themselves. Other forms, they just heard about. Some employers told their black workers if they joined protest marches, they’d be fired. Shelley the Playboy…

Shelley: There weren’t any black salespeople, there were any black owners, there weren’t any black managers. So, the managers would dare and tell the guys on the air, that if they announced a civil rights meeting…a mass meeting, they didn’t say civil rights meeting…we’re going to fire you.

Booker: You know, when you have to sit and watch your aunt, your grandmamma, all these people you respected…these are your elders, these are the people you see, these are your authority figures…

Pat: Washington Booker

Booker: And, you’ve seen young black folk around them, and they’re ‘yes, Miss Anna,’ and then up walks some twenty year old white boy walks up, and they all become ‘yes, suh…yes, suh.” And,,’ and then up walks some twenty year old white boy walks up, and they all become ‘yes, suh…yes, suh.” And, you know they just relished it.”

Pat: So, if the grown-ups couldn’t join in the protests, one of Dr. King’s lieutenants had an idea. James Stewart…

Stewart: “That’s when I started getting involved. And, there was a reverend James Beville, who was a really dynamic speaker and he kind of appealed to the kids. And, he wore one of the blue jeans suits, and had badges from everybody, and pins all over, and he was baldheaded and wore this skull cap. And he’s the one who was the kids’ ‘pied piper,’ he talked to us about getting involved. And we reached a point where we said ‘we need to do something to change this.’

Pat: And that’s where Birmingham area disc jockey Shelley “the playboy” Stewart comes in. James Beville also wanted to use local radio stations to get the word out on protest day. He talked to Shelley as well as another local disc jockey named Paul White. His radio audience knew him as “Tall Paul.” Shelley says on May 2, 1963, he and “Tall Paul” announced the start of the children’s march. But, they did it in a roundabout way. They used codes.

Shelley: They had to use to get codes to get into the community. If we made an announcement ‘I want everyone to go to the park,” you don’t do that. You had to remember there were mothers and fathers who were afraid and they’d lock the door, and the teachers and principals would lock the doors. You just went around that. As they said in the old days, ‘there’s more than way to skin a cat.’ ‘Shake, Rattle, and Roll’…that’s an old tune by an artist named Joe Turner. And, we said when we played ‘Shake, Rattle, and Roll’ that’s the signal. Time to go out. So, it’s ‘Shake, Rattle, and Roll.’

Fade up Joe Turner’s Shake, Rattle and Roll…then fade under...

Shelley: And, when those kids heard that, they told the teachers ‘we’re gone!’ And, the teachers tried to stop them, they were jumping out of windows at Parker High. So, that is really happened, and it escalated. Bull Connor was very upset, the local police didn’t know what to do.”

Keep Shake, Rattle, and Roll low under

Gaffney: And, I mean…it was…unbelievable. Everybody started storming out of the school. Some got out of windows. I remember Mr. Winston stood at the door, he was the teacher everybody was afraid of, and he held his hand up and said ‘stop!’ And the kids just trampled over him, and he went back like this with his hand still in the air. They just trampled over him. So, all just marched from Parker to 16th street. Carver in north Birmingham is farther than that. But, they all marched to 16th street. That’s what they did.

Stewart: So, we were jammed into the paddy wagons. People were running over from the park, and they had seen what was going on, and there were news people, so it was a little chaotic in the streets. And they brought out the police and arrested us. And, it was a pretty terrifying experience.

Booker: And I felt the emotions, and the crowds that lined the streets, and then when the marchers were signing and the people were singing, it just went whoosh! And you felt like you were a part of it. And I had already made up my mind, I was going to jail.

Fade up Shake, Rattle, and Roll and it ends cold.

Stewart: Jail was like hell. It was four days of really hell.

Pat: James Stewart.

Stewart: We were put in a room that could hold fifty or sixty people comfortably. They put three hundred of us in that room. It was standing room only. It was a concrete floor, it was concrete walls, very small windows with the bars on them. It was very hot. And they just kept putting us in that room. We had to develop a system just to sleep. We would make space on the floor, and most of us would stand around the walls, or sit in the windows. And those who slept on the floor, slept on the concrete.

Pat: Washington Booker was in that cell too.

Booker: Going to jail didn’t slow anybody down, didn’t break anyone spirit. Okay, we’re in jail, this is what we supposed to do…let’s all sing… ‘ain’t gonna let nobody turn me round, turn me round…’ And we sang. It was…it was…anything but punishment.

Pat: That was day one of the children’s march. On day two, more marches took place, more arrests were made. But when these students were put behind bars, Stewart and Booker noticed they were soaking wet.

Gaffney: I was out in the park when they released the fire hoses and the police dogs.

Pat: Eloise Gaffney.

Gaffney: I was walking along, at that time it was Fifth Avenue, and it was a whole row of businesses there, and they all had glass windows, and I mean the water was so forceful it knocked me into the windows. I mean they were in the park, and the water had come over a block. Some of us found fun in it. Some of us laid on the ground and let the water push us around the park. We made a fun thing out of it. I know one of the girls who had bite marks from the dogs, so that was really scary. But the fear didn’t come. Now, when I think about it…Lord. I think it had be Lord to keep us, because we didn’t realize the danger.

Floyd Patterson: Sitting up here in my training camp, watching television and reading the newspapers, I felt guilty, like I wasn’t doing my job, at least my share of it anyway…

Pat: Heavyweight boxing champion Floyd Patterson is referring is news reports on the children’s march. He pledged to join baseball great Jackie Robinson and march alongside the protester…

Reporter: What happens if they arrest you? Patterson: I’ll go to jail. Reporter: What happens if they turn the dogs or the hoses on you? Patterson: The hoses are alright, but I can’t allow an animal to bite me. So, I’d had to do something. If the animal bites me, but if as far as the hoses are concerned and the brutality that the officers may inflict on me, I’m prepared to take that. Just not the dogs.

Pat: And it wasn’t just sports heroes who saw the news reports. James Stewart.

Stewart: My father, who was a physician in Birmingham was at a medical meeting, and his brother was a physician as well and they were at a medical meeting. And they saw the news. And it said dogs were released on school children in Birmingham and the demonstrations. So the doctors were all around the television, and my uncle said to my father ‘isn’t that James, you know in the demonstration?” Because the showed the first day and then some of the second day of the demonstration. “Isn’t that James right there?” And my father said “you know, it is.” And, he got on the phone and called my mother, and she answered the phone and she said “Yes, I see him, I see him.” And they started planning how to get me out of jail. They knew that if something was going on, I’d be in the thick of it.

Fade up JFK clip

JFK: “Today, as the result of responsible efforts on the part of both white and Negro leaders, over the last seventy two hours.

Pat: President John F. Kennedy

JFK: The business community in Birmingham has responded in a constructive and commendable fashion and pledged that substantial steps would begin to meet the justifiable needs of the Negro community. Negro leaders have announced suspension of their demonstration.

Pat: Washington Booker. 

Booker: Having access to jobs where we spent our money was part of what we were asking for. We had the right be salespeople where we spent our money. But, for us as kids, that was far off. But going to the Alabama Theatre did, sitting at that lunch counter did.

JFK fades back up…

JFK: We can hope that tensions will ease. And that this case history, which has so far only narrowly avoided violence and fatalities, will remind every State, and citizen and every community, how urgent it is that all bars to equal opportunity and treatment be removed as promptly as possible. Pat: The next year, Congress passed the Civil Rights Act. Change was coming, but some of it would take time…

Fade up music of Wallace campaign stop in Gary, Indiana…

Pat: The same year the Civil Rights Act was signed, Alabama Governor George Wallace ran for President of the United States. Among his campaign stops was Gary, Indiana.

Accr: And this may not set well with the Press, but it’s a promise made. These are Confederate flag dish towels signed by Governor Walker….I mean Governor Wallace. I’m sure you want forget his name…Governor Wallace…

Wallace: I say to you again, as I said to you Congressman before the platform committee. I know you Congressman and your county and district, and I’ve said that if I’m ever run out of Alabama, I’m coming to Lake County, Indiana. (crowd cheers)

Pat: Wallace would later renounce his support for segregation, and even apologize for it. But, fifty years later, James Stewart is still dealing with it…

Stewart: There are people who say get over it, just get over it. When you see the size and the magnitude of what happened, it’s not easy to get over.

Pat: Washington Booker gets those questions too, from his grandchildren.

Booker: What they can’t really get their minds around is understand how we….how we took it. Why didn’t we fight to the death and be done with it. Maybe that’s taking to an extreme, but that’s what they wonder.

Pat: Eloise Gaffney is concerned that young people today won’t know why the children’s march took place unless someone tells them. She trying to use a tradition that goes back even before 1963. The Reverend Fred Shuttlesworth came up with the idea when civil rights meetings became more and more frequent.

Gaffney: It started out on Monday nights, but the more intense the movement got they met every night. So, reverend Shuttlesworth said, ‘well, like a church you need a choir, you need singing.’ We were singing songs, but it wasn’t an organized effort. So that’s when the Alabama Christian Unity Choir was formed.

Choir sound fades up ….

Pat: This is a 1963 recording of the Christian Unity Choir. At the age of thirteen, Eloise Gaffney became the youngest member. They sang at the meetings and at the marches…

1963 Choir sound up, then cross fades to 2013 choir…

Pat: And fifty years later, they’re still at it. Gaffney is now the director and the group is known as the Carlton Reese Memorial Unity Choir as its founder. The group includes protesters from the 1963 children’s march. Gaffney says between songs they talk about why they did it.

Gaffney: Okay, how did we get from there to here? Now, you realize that a person that has the ability no matter of the color of their skin, they should be able to perform that job.

Pat: Today’s concert is at the Birmingham Public Library. Most of the audience is made up of adults, but not all of them.

Meleko: It really means a lot to me, and it touches me that they’d make that kind of sacrifice just for me and others.

Pat: Meleko is eleven years old. His grandmother brought him. Meleko: They didn’t risk their lives and spend their lives just for me to take life for granted. So, I think I should as much out of life and learn as much as I can from them.

2013 choir fade up…

Pat: And as for Shelley “the playboy” Stewart, he moved on as well. The Birmingham area disc jockey who signaled the start of the children march retired from the radio business in the 2002. He was voted into the Alabama Broadcasting Hall of Fame six years later. Still, one thing still bothers him.

Shelley: There’s a book that’s out someone published, and you see it in various retail stores on the history of Birmingham broadcasting. But, they don’t mention any blacks, or Negroes, or coloreds in the history of radio or television in early years. In other words, it’s out there and in radio, it’s like I never existed.

Pat: Maybe so. But, the children of 1963, they say they remember. We had production assistance from the Birmingham Radio History Museum, the University of Alabama library archives, the Birmingham Record Collectors Club, the University of Georgia library, the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute, and the Dr. Martin Luther King Center. The executive producer of Civil Rights Radio is Elizabeth Brock. I’m Pat Duggins, for all of us at Alabama Public Radio, thanks for tuning in, and good night.