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The Northerner

Still a civil rights activist

By Joe Castelli

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‘Those are men,’ shouted Carl Westmoreland, senior advisor for historic preservation at the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center, while pointing to the poster behind him and leaning into the audience at Otto Budig Theater.’ ‘They’re not out shooting each other; they’re not running around with their pants below their knees.’ They’re protecting a woman. Those are men.’

Many in the audience left immediately after the closing remarks, subsequently missing the presentation of the poster.’ It showed Thursday, Feb. 12th’s keynote speaker Carolyn McKinstry, then in high school, being shielded by two black men as firefighters attempted to hose her into submission.’ She was already drenched from top to bottom as the three young civil rights activists braced themselves using a nearby building, one of the men absorbing the water pressure with the small of his back.’

Only the day before,’ a 14-year-old McKinstry, now president of the Sixteenth Street Foundation, attended a mass meeting at the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church where she made a conscious decision to be part of a movement for freedom.’ She recalled hearing the fiery speeches of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Rev. Jesse Jackson, and singing in the sanctuary:
Woke up this morning with my mind on freedom
And I’m gonna do what the Spirit says do.
If the spirit says march, then O Lord, I’m gonna march.
I’m gonna do what the spirit says do.


Those at the meeting were told of the movement, and the march they would be a part of.’ ‘We listened to the speeches of Dr. Martin Luther King, and then we listened to instructions on how to approach the police – how to confront the police,’ said McKinstry.’ ‘We were told of all of the things that could possibly happen when we were confronted by the police.’ The police might spit on you.’ The police might hit you with billy clubs.’ The police might have dogs that will bite you.

‘The only appropriate response, ever, to the police is a non-violent response, or prayer,” she remembered being told. ”And if you cannot respond non-violently, then you may not need to be a part on this movement.’

The next day, a young man showed up at the fence of the school with a sign that simply read, ‘It Is Time.’

People emerged from all over the neighborhood to partake in the non-violent march.’ ‘Those people ranged in ages from eight-years-old, to 80-years-old,’ said McKinstry.’ ‘And there is one account of a 4-year-old going to jail.’

Those partaking in the march to the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church encountered more than they initially anticipated, including tanks and fire hoses.’ One of the firemen later returned to the church to apologize, as well as to reveal that they were instructed that day to aim at the activists’ legs, ‘because the fire hoses had been known to break legs.’

Over 5,000 people were arrested in what is often referred to as ‘The Children’s March.’

The church was ‘a shelter in the time of storm,’ said McKinstry.’ ‘It was everything for us, so we spent our time there.’ Who would think that this would not have been a safe place for us to be?”

Sept. 15, 1963 was youth day at the church.’ The lesson that day was ‘A Love that Forgives.’

The phone rang in the office of the church at the top of the steps.’ McKinstry picked up and heard a male voice on the other end say, ‘Three minutes,’ then hung up.’ McKinstry thought that it was just another of the annoying, harassing phone calls they’d been receiving.’

Not even three minutes after that cryptic phone call, the explosion that would play a pivotal role in the civil rights movement took the lives of four of McKinstry’s young friends.

One of the girls who died in the explosion, though all dear to McKinstry, was her ‘soul mate,’ as the two liked to say ‘- her best friend Cynthia Wesley, who, like McKinstry, was 14 at the time. According to McKinstry, bombing was a way of life before the incident at the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church.’

McKinstry did not attend the services for her friends, but remembers hearing something that Dr. King said in his eulogy ‘- ‘The blood of the girls might well serve as a redemptive force, not just in Birmingham, but in our nation, and in our world.’

Though she still sees racial issues in the present day, McKinstry said that the racial challenges of today are a lot different than they were in the 1960s.’

She gave a list of what we should be doing in 2009:
1 ‘- ‘Get involved.’ Do something.’ There are so many areas where people are needed to work.’ Find the area that is a match for you.’
2 ‘- ‘Help us eradicate racial injustice.’ The Constitution still has a lot of racial language in it.’ The ban on interracial marriage was only recently lifted in 2000.’
3 ‘- ‘Have a moral compass.’ Morality is not group consensus.’ Be aware of what is going on around you.’
4 ‘- ‘Gain a world perspective.’
5 ‘- ‘Educate yourself the best that you can.’ We need to educate our children, black and white, who don’t know these stories.’ I’ve found that when we tell those stories, it does create a type of understanding, and a feeling of responsibility, that I don’t contribute to the mistakes of the past.’

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The Independent Student Newspaper of Northern Kentucky University.
Still a civil rights activist