In a piece titled “Until Justice Rolls Down Like Water,” The Water Citizen Network explored the history and role of water in the Civil Rights Movement.
On May 3, 1963 – Double D-Day – school children in Birmingham staged their second day of peaceful demonstrations for Civil Rights. Having already arrested 973 students the day before – with jail cells overflowing – Commissioner of Public Safety Eugene “Bull” Connor ordered that the children be sprayed with fire hoses. Doubling the water pressure to 100 pounds per square inch, Connor ordered his police to “let them have it,” blasting the students with water that knocked them off their feet. The images of children hit by water were a catalyst for the legislation that would become the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The Water Citizen Network took a look back at some of the many instances where water played a prominent role in the Civil Rights Movement.
A Children’s Story: The Use of Water in the Birmingham Campaign
In preparation for last year’s 50th anniversary of the Birmingham Campaign for Civil Rights, participants in the demonstrations – including the children of Double D-Day – were interviewed about their experiences.
Greater Birmingham Convention and Visitors Bureau’s Vickie Ashford told Water Citizen News, “I spoke with people who were actually hit with the water hoses, and their hair was pulled away from their head because of the strength of the water.”
Crossing the Waters for Civil Rights
Rivers played a prominent role in the Civil Rights movement, both physically and symbolically, as demonstrators crossed – or were prevented from crossing – rivers to travel between areas practicing more or less racial discrimination, and for Civil Rights activists to get to demonstrations.
Marilyn Stamps, from the Alabama Board of Tourism, talked about the role of the Edmund Pettus Bridge, where demonstrators marching from Selma to Montgomery (the Alabama capital) were attacked during a voting rights march on “Bloody Sunday.”
In another instance, Stamps noted that ferry service was stopped by the government of Wilcox County, Alabama, to keep “communities isolated from the rest of the world” and prevent residents in those communities from crossing the Alabama River to participate in Civil Rights activities.
Wade in the Water – The Civil Rights Movement Remembers the Underground Railroad
The Civil Rights movement often recognized the use of spirituals to communicate the role of rivers in the Underground Railroad – the network of people, pathways, and resources for escaping slaves to reach freedom. Songs such as the spiritual “Wade in the Water” were used to explain how traveling in the water would allow escaping slaves to avoid being tracked by bloodhounds.
Water for Healing and Movement Towards Progress in Civil Rights
When choosing a symbol for the Civil Rights movement, and opportunities for healing and movement towards progress, architect Maya Lin (who also designed the Vietnam Memorial) used water in combination with Martin Luther King’s powerful quote: When Justice Rolls Down Like Water and Righteousness Like a Mighty Stream.
As noted by Stamps, “a lot of people come just to run their hands in it … you can feel the cooling effects of the waters.”
“Water is significant in that is has played a tremendous impact on how people are transported from one area of their lives to another,” said Alabama Board of Tourism’s Marilyn Stamps.
“Water is a symbol of movement from one place to another. As we look back on the Civil Rights movement, we have seen how we as a nation, and we as a people, and we as Alabamans have progressed from the turbulence of the Civil Rights Movement to the progress we have made today.”