Janice Wesley

  Firefighters turn their hoses full force on civil rights demonstrators, July 15, 1963, Birmingham, Alabama Photograph ©AP/Shutterstock in perpetuity

When

1963

Where

Birmingham, Alabama

Context

Birmingham Children’s Crusade

In 1963, 16-year-old Janice Wesley heard about a mass meeting in a church in her town of Birmingham, Alabama. She attended because she thought it might be fun. At the meeting, Janice decided it was time to stand up for her rights: at that time, Birmingham was the most segregated city in the USA. On May 2nd she participated in a non-violent protest along with thousands of other young people. They congregated at 16th Street Baptist Church, where they sang, said prayers, and were sent out to march in groups of fifty. This was the Birmingham Children’s Crusade and it lasted three days.

One after another, each group was arrested. Janice spent four days in jail. Images of the vicious police response were broadcast all over the world:

Some of the battles were won because innocent blood was shed. We paid a price for the freedoms that were obtained; some of us were bitten by dogs, some were hosed, many others were jailed. Six innocent young people died. Freedom was not free!”

Janice Wesley
Children wait in a makeshift jail at Fair Park, Birmingham after being arrested. Janice Wesley is the girl smiling in the centre of the photograph, with her friend Barbara Fletcher to her right. ©AP/Shutterstock

I had planned my day by packing my purse. Toothpaste, soap, change of underwear, my sister’s jacket. I just got everything I thought I would need, because I was determined that I was going to jail, so that I could go and get my freedom

Janice Wesley

I’m fat, but do you know why?
It doesn’t matter if I’m fat, large or big,
I will never lose my soul.
Just maybe my heart at times.

I’m innocent, fresh like a blossomed flowed.
The nature protects me but you,
Look at me and insult me,
‘Fat elephant, ugly whale, fat shit’

Have you ever looked in my eyes?
Have you seen the sea reflecting in them?
Have you noticed the sun disappearing in the darkness of my pupils?
How would you feel if your bones were aching every day?
Imagine you empty stomach, so hungry,
But your mouth makes everything taste lifeless.

I was thin as a tree branch, losing its leaves.
My bones were as fragile as a birds bones, crushed by a lorry.
I was leukaemia, but leukaemia never beat me.

– Alexandra Letu

 

Alexandra wrote this poem while with the JtoJ Poetry Club at George Mitchell High School, Leyton, east London. She was inspired by a poem called ‘Still I Rise’ by Maya Angelou. She wants to empower her voice regardless of what she looks like.

I am shy,

But I can start a riot.

Don’t be fooled by my silence.

I am soft, soft in the voice.

I am strong,

So, I will not be QUIET.

– Samira Hussein

 

 

Samira was a member of the JtoJ Poetry Club at George Mitchell High School, Leyton, east London. She was inspired by Maya Angelou – empowering women’s rights.