From left in front, Birmingham, Alabama civil rights activists Gwendolyn...

From left in front, Birmingham, Alabama civil rights activists Gwendolyn Webb, Gwendolyn Gamble and Gloria Washington Lewis Randall on Monday at the FDNY's Engine Co. 1, Ladder 24, where they discussed a fire department union resolution from 60 years ago condemning the treatment of protesters.

Credit: ED QUINN

In the truck bay of a New York City firehouse Monday, city and state leaders gathered with three activists from Birmingham, Alabama, to commemorate one of the less-heralded moments of the civil rights movement.

When the activists — grandmothers and grandees of the movement now, girls then — marched in the May 1963 Children’s Crusade, they provoked a response by Birmingham authorities who used police dogs and fire hoses. It was so vicious that it shocked the conscience of a nation, including members of the Uniformed Fire Officers Association, representing FDNY supervisors, who condemned the “reprehensible” use of firefighters in a union resolution that year.

“The liberty of the negro people of Birmingham, Alabama has been denied to them,” the resolution read, in part. “This shameful and deplorable conduct by the City … has brought discredit to the honorable status of professional firefighters.”

More than 60 years later, as the FDNY continues to address its own allegations of racial discrimination, the activists — Gwendolyn Gamble, Gwendolyn Webb and Gloria Washington Lewis Randall — recalled that day in 1963 with horrifying detail at Engine Co. 1, Ladder 24 in Manhattan.

For starters: “This was a cannon,” not a hose, said Randall. “When it hit you, it flipped you over … It was terrible. It breaks your skin, bruises you.”

On Tuesday, the activists are scheduled to tell their stories on Long Island. They are set to appear at noon at Ralph G. Reed Middle School in Central Islip in an event sponsored by the NAACP and Legal Aid.

The 1963 protests drew front page coverage in Newsday; the Birmingham News relegated them to page 2, with a story describing a fire chief’s order to “sprinkle” protesters with water before turning the hoses on in full. There seems to have been almost no coverage of the UFOA resolution, which current president James McCarthy said came after a general membership meeting in July of that year.

“The members of the UFOA were outraged that the [Birmingham] fire department was being used in such a way,” he said in a phone interview. “The fire department exists to protect life and property, to make sure everyone is safe and secure. We swear an oath to the Constitution and we take that very seriously.”

McCarthy’s predecessors may have had that oath in mind when they prefaced their resolution with language about “self-evident” truths and the “right of peaceable assembly … without regard to creed or color.”

In that era, McCarthy said, “unions were one of the only official organizations that were embracing inclusion” and a vision of equal opportunity through collective bargaining.

Even so, the FDNY has in recent years faced its own allegations of racial discrimination. A 2022 City Council report found the FDNY was 76% white, 8% Black, 13% Hispanic, far less diverse than the city itself. A council oversight hearing identified a “historical culture of harassment and minorities in the Department,” and while current hiring trends will improve firefighter racial and ethnic composition, according to the council, “it’s not projected to reach NYC’s demographics within the next 15 years.”

Monday's gathering included Khalid Baylor, first vice president for the Vulcan Society, a group established by Black FDNY firefighters. Asked in an interview to reconcile the union's action with the City Council fire service numbers, Baylor said the statistics were "not reflective of the city" and that his organization is “trying to move the needle forward.”

An FDNY spokeswoman said Fire Commissioner Laura Kavanagh’s “focus on diversifying the department has been successful,” citing legislation to improve diversity with recruitment and retention, ongoing training and firehouse upgrades. 

The UFOA resolution called for union officials to protest to Birmingham officials for their “debasement of the image of firefighters by misusing them to hurt rather than to help people in danger.” It called for the protest to be forwarded to other union organizations so that they might do the same.

McCarthy said he was unaware of any response from other unions or from Birmingham officials. Gamble, one of the marchers, said that “Birmingham did receive that resolution in 1963, but only — only city hall and Eugene “Bull” Connor knew anything about it.” Connor was the notorious segregationist and public safety commissioner who attempted to use police and fire department power to quash the protests.

She and her fellow marchers had learned of the resolution about five years ago. It made her proud, after all these years, of her fellow Americans: “to hear and find out and see for myself that there were people in this country who condemned what Birmingham denied doing” was a reason for hope, she said.

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