The Children’s Crusade

Rebecca Cochran

Forum Event  July 27, 2019 Crusades Past and Present

“Set in Jerusalem during the Third Crusade, Nathan the Wise makes a persuasive plea for religious tolerance.  What crusades exist in  our world today, and how do they compare to those of the past?  What remains the same and what has changed?”

The Stratford Festival is not just about performances of plays, but a place where actors, directors, audience members, and invited experts come to exchange ideas and engage on the topics the plays raise.

Our group did not see the play, Nathan the Wise, yet the Forum Event connected to the play, deeply engaged me in the notion of a crusade.

For some reason, the only crusade I remembered was the “Children’s Crusade.” It was one of about seven major Crusades that were launched between the 11th and 13th centuries.  Christians in Europe marched against the Muslims to wrest control of the Holy Lands away from them.  Descriptions I read painted a picture of young boys leaving farms and other work to join this effort.  They did so despite the protests of their parents, masters and others who, of course, had need of their labor.  

Of the many who joined up, few actually made it to the Holy Land.  After leaving France or Germany, many were turned back when they reached other parts of Europe or in Rome.    Very few ever returned to their homes.

What happened to them?  Sadly, I learned that many were captured and sold into slavery.  They were vulnerable young people engaged in a “crusade” that was really not supported by the Church and discouraged by the adults in their families who viewed them as valuable, but unpaid, labor.

But, why did I remember specifically the “Children’s Crusade”?  I realized this term was applied to an event that loomed large in my own childhood, living then in the “North” – Buffalo, New York.  In May of 1963, the Civil Rights movement was in full force in the United States, especially in the South.  Birmingham, Alabama, was a city notorious for its discrimination:  segregation ruled every aspect of public life and employment.  The Southern Christian Leadership Conference [SCLC] created a plan to desegregate Birmingham using non-violence protests. 

Dr. Martin Luther King came to town to help lead the protest; he was arrested and jailed along with hundreds of others.  This jail time is when he wrote his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.”

As the weeks passed, the campaign faltered as more adults were arrested.  Then, one SCLC leader announced that believed he could turn the tide in Birmingham by training young people, children from age 8 through high school,  in the tactics of non-violence. This leader actually called it the “Children’s Crusade,” referring back to that event in 1212!  The children marched and many were arrested.

But the second day the children marched, police were ordered to spray them with fire hoses, hit them with police batons, and threaten them with police dogs.  These images of the police attacking the children were how I learned about the Children’s Crusade.  I can remember watching the small black and white television in our house and struggling to comprehend how this could be happening.  I was ten years old and I could see that some of the children I saw on the screen were my own age.  It was terrifying and I wondered if I could do the same if called upon.  This “crusade” was the first time I glimpsed what later would be called white privilege.