“Let me know at the start of this conversation that I have never been a civil rights activist of any kind,” says former Birmingham radio disc jockey Shelley Stewart. “I want to make that perfectly clear.”
The teenagers who took part in the 1963 children’s march see it differently They say they relied on signals and code words from Stewart’s radio show to know when the protest would begin. And even Shelley admits he knew firsthand what school kids, both black and white, could do in the race of racism. When he wasn’t on the air, Shelley the playboy played records at dance parties. That included a 1960 event at a Birmingham area hot spot called Don’s teen town About eight hundred kids there that night to witness the performance of “Shelley,” recalls Stewart.
“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.”
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 with the January inauguration of Governor George Wallace, with this phrase from his opening address…
“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.”
“It was mean, and we lived through it,” recalled Eloise 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.
On May 2, 1963, Gaffney would take part in the children’s march, as would James Stewart.
“My mother….when I was very young, my mother took me to town to the one of stores,” he says. “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.’”
Gaffney and Stewart would be joined during the Children’s March by Washington Booker.
“I can remember seeing some kid with a banana split….some white kid sitting at the counter with this big ole banana split,” Booker recalls. “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.”
Booker, Stewart, and Gaffney would soon find themselves in the middle of the children’s march as well as the response by the Birmingham Police that would shock the nation. That’s tomorrow in part three of civil rights radio.