Interview: Nick Patterson, Author of "Birmingham Foot Soldiers: Voices from the Civil Rights Movement"



Author Nick Patterson.

When we talk about the Civil Rights Movement in Birmingham, some big names spring to mind: Martin Luther King Jr., Reverend Fred Shuttlesworth. But thousands of everyday people also participated in the 1963 Birmingham campaign, often risking their safety -- and even their lives.

Author Nick Patterson tells their stories in his new book "Birmingham Foot Soldiers: Voices from the Civil Rights Movement." For the book, he spoke with many people who participated in the Children's Crusade in May of 1963.

Nick Patterson sat down with WBHM's Rachel Osier Lindley to talk about why he wanted to write about Birmingham's lesser-known foot soldiers.


Read a Selection from "Birmingham Foot Soldiers: Voices from the Civil Rights Movement" Nick Patterson writing about Raymond Goolsby.

"When the housing project came through Kingston we moved to Titusville in 1956 and I thought we were rich," he recalls. "We had a new home, my sisters and I…. Being in the middle of two girls I had a good experience. My parents worked hard. My dad worked for the Railway Express up at the Terminal Station. My mother was a presser at McCain Manufacturing Company and so, I mean, I can say that I thought we had a good life.

"I got the English bikes, I got the Hutch Football Set, I got the trumpet to be in the band. My parents worked real hard and tried to supply us with our needs. I thought we were rich, one while. But my mom said, 'Boy, you're way off target.'"

At first, he didn't fully understand how far off target his perception of life in Birmingham actually was. That's because his parents made a point of giving their children experiences that not all African-American kids at that time had. "My dad would get passes for us to ride the train and we'd go up the East Coast all the way up to New York. We would take the train to Chicago. So we traveled, you know? And we would go downtown on Christmas and look in the window at Loveman's and Pizitz [two Birmingham department stores]. We always got something for Christmas. So all was good."

Despite living a peaceful, happy life at home, though, it began to dawn on young Ray that there was an inherent unfairness in Birmingham.


Rarely seen images of some of Birmingham's foot soldiers. Photo from the archives at the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute.

"What really opened my eyes, when we moved to Titusville we would have something they called May Day. End of the school year [at Center Street School] they'd have a big picnic. And we would go past Kiddieland Park on 3rd Avenue West which is now the Crossplex [at the Alabama State Fairgrounds] and I would say, 'Dad, how come I can't go in there?' It was a Ferris wheel and the train and the bumper cars and dad would say, 'Well, one day you will] -- like that.

So we would go out to George Washington Carver Park out in Bessemer [a city about 14 miles southwest of Birmingham] and there were two rides: A swing, time you got in, and a train that would go across a real dusty field. But mom would fix us tuna sandwiches and stuff and we had a pop or something and we'd have a good time. But it still remained in my mind, 'Why can't I go in there?' and Dad would just say, "One day you will."

"We would get on the bus sometime, pay our fare and we would have to go open the back door to get on, you know. And...as I grew older I'd say, 'Something just ain't right here, you know?' I remember the board. You know, you'd be sitting down and a white person would get on and if the bus was full, they would move the board back and we'd have to get up and stand in the back. And I'd say, 'Something just ain't right here.' "

Nick Patterson reads from his book on Monday, July 21 at the Birmingham Public Library's main branch from 5-7 p.m. in the Richard Arrington Jr. Auditorium. The reading is sponsored by Metro Birmingham Branch NAACP.


~ Rachel Osier Lindley, July 17, 2014