Birmingham, Alabama— 60 years ago, when Janice Wesley Kelsey heard Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s lieutenant, Rev. James Bevel, speak during a mass meeting at New Pilgrim Baptist Church in Birmingham, she decided to help fight for desegregation.
At just 16 years old, Mrs. Kelsey became a foot soldier in the Birmingham, Alabama Children’s Crusades and was among hundreds who went to jail for protesting the racial segregation that prevailed in the city and throughout the South.
Now at 76, Kelsey’s advocacy and activism continue as she travels the United States, speaking about the challenges of living in the old South and how she and other youth helped change America and the world.
“You need to know what happened so that you can explain it because it’s not just out there. You have to take on a personal journey to find out what happened and why it happened. Then you will recognize it when you see evidence of it, going back the other way,” she told the packed room of journalists at the Birmingham Jefferson Convention Center.
Kelsey and Sarah Collins Rudolph, a survivor of the historic and tragic 16th Street Baptist Church bombing in 1963, shared their experiences on the “Voice of The Civil Rights” panel hosted by Comcast NBCUniversal and moderated by NBC News Today Show co-host Sheinelle Jones. The conversation took place during the annual National Association of Black Journalists (NABJ) annual convention and career fair.
Kelsey shared details of her arrest and the harrowing fight for equality during the Civil Rights Movement, now chronicled in her book I Woke Up with My Mind on Freedom.
“I’m happy to share in a forum like this so that people who come from other places will know that this was not just a Birmingham problem. That it’s an American problem,” she said.
The Birmingham demonstrations helped lead to the passage of historic Civil Rights legislation such as the Voting Rights Act of 1964. Even though significant progress has been made since Kelsey’s arrest 60 years ago, she says that recent Supreme Court rulings and the censorship surrounding teaching Black history in schools show there is still a lot to be done.
When asked by audience members for advice on taking action against injustice and ensuring that the stories of what happened are not erased, Kelsey said: “They want to remove history from the curriculum from grade school all the way through higher education. They are monitoring what you can learn and what you can study. You are a citizen of the United States, and you have a right to fight for what you want in your schools,” she said.
“You have the power to use your voice,” she added, noting that no matter how small, each person can make a difference.