Hempstead High honors women who took part in '63 civil rights marches

Hempstead Mayor Wayne Hall and Hempstead School Board president Betty Cross along with state and federal officials honored civil rights leaders who participated as teenagers in the March Against Racism 51 years ago in Birmingham, Ala. Janice Kelsey and Gwendolyn Gamble, who still live in Birmingham, received standing ovations at an hourlong ceremony in Hempstead High School on Saturday, May 3, 2014. (Credit: Howard Schnapp)

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Two civil rights pioneers, who as teenagers marched in the Children's Crusade in Birmingham, Ala., to protest racial segregation, were celebrated Saturday on Long Island on the 51st anniversary of the demonstrations.

The women -- Janice Kelsey and Gwendolyn Gamble -- who still live in Birmingham, were honored and received standing ovations at an hourlong ceremony in Hempstead High School. The retired educators were among thousands of African-American students who participated in nonviolent civil rights demonstrations from May 2 to 5, 1963.

"We recognized that we were being denied our human rights," said Kelsey, 67, who was then 16 and was jailed for four nights. "We stood up for what we felt was right."

The students left their classes to march downtown to speak with the mayor about segregation in their city, but were arrested, hit with batons, doused with high-pressure fire hoses and attacked by police dogs commanded by public safety Commissioner Eugene "Bull" Connor. National television reports on the violent response to the peaceful marchers helped galvanize political support for the civil rights movement. A few days later, Birmingham leaders agreed to desegregate businesses and free people jailed during the demonstrations.

"Being 15 years old and you're leaving home every morning not knowing what you are going to face and not knowing if you are going to make it home safely," said Gamble, 66. She was arrested and injured by the force of the water during the protest. She said she told herself, "I am going to stand tall and I am going to fight for what I believe in."

Before the ceremony, about 100 people, including school board members, community leaders, elected officials, parents and students, walked on the high school grounds holding "March for Freedom" signs to recreate the historic march.

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Later the crowd held hands and sang "We Shall Overcome," the civil rights anthem.

"I just look at you and admire you," school board president Betty Cross told Kelsey and Gamble during the ceremony. "What you've been through. You can't understand it until you've been there because I know you went through it for me."

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