Fifty five years ago this month, a group of teenage girls were locked in a 19th-century stockade in the Georgia heat, imprisoned for their activism on behalf of the Civil Rights movement.
A piece by Tulani Salahu-Din at the website of the National Museum of African American History and Culture goes into the story of the Leesburg Stockade Girls, a group of teenage girls 12 to 15 who were arrested in Civil Rights protests in Americus, Georgia, part of a group trying to integrate the local movie theater. They were taken to first to nearby Dawson and then—rather than back to Americus—they were transferred to Leesburg, to the out-of-the-way Lee County Stockade.
It was July 1963, an absolutely brutal season in south Georgia, and the conditions were primitive. Their parents didn’t know where they were until the dog catcher (who brought their food) sent word, according to an NPR piece. Some of the girls were held for more than a month. Salahu-Din wrote:
A month into their confinement, Danny Lyon, a twenty-one year old photographer for the Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), learned of the girls’ whereabouts and sneaked onto the stockade grounds to take pictures of the girls through barred windows. After SNCC published the photos in its newspaper The Student Voice, African American newspapers across the country printed the story, and the girls’ ordeal soon gained national attention.
They were far from the only children and teens arrested during the movement, too. Salahu-Din added about the students who joined the protests in Birmingham in May 1963:
The next day the number of children doubled. However, the training classes provided by SCLC leaders could not have prepared the children for the violence they would encounter. The Commissioner of Public Safety Eugene “Bull” Connor directed the use of fire hoses and attack dogs on the children, and people in America and around the world witnessed this brutality. Authorities arrested nearly 2,000 children—one as young as four years old. These protests continued throughout the first week of May, with over 5,000 children being jailed.
It’s a prescient reminder that, while utterly horrifying, the ongoing family separation crisis at the border and the brutal detention of children isn’t a radical break with American tradition, but part of a long and ugly history.