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James Stewart’s mother taught at a local black college and his father was a medical doctor. The Stewarts’ middle-class status could have set James apart from other kids, but his family made sure that it didn’t.

James differed from most of his friends and classmates in yet another way: he had lighter skin. James’s family had inherited 180 acres of land from James’s white great-grandfather. Along with much effort and family teamwork over the generations, this inheritance eventually helped them climb out of poverty and into the middle class.

In the spring of 1963, one of James’s school friends invited him to watch a sit-in at a segregated lunch counter. After seeing white people pour ketchup and crack eggs on the demonstrators’ heads, James told his friend that sit-ins were not for him. He knew he’d be too tempted to fight back, violating the pledge of nonviolence that the protesters had to take. Instead, he started going to mass meetings at the church.

On D-Day, James stood at the front of the marchers at Sixteenth Street Baptist Church. “When the door was opened, I was shocked at the number of people,” he said. James and his fellow protesters only marched about a block and a half before they were arrested.

In jail, James was housed with several hundred boys in a space intended for about thirty. “We had to sleep in shifts,” James said. “Certain ones would lie down and try to sleep, and the rest of us stood around the walls or sat in the windowsills.”

On May 3, new protesters arrived in jail—and they were soaking wet. They told James and the others about the powerful hoses. James learned about the dog attacks from a young man who’d been severely bitten.

By his fourth day in prison, James was getting sick. His parents provided bail for him as well as for three or four of his friends.

At school the following Monday, James’s homeroom teacher called the names of all the students who had participated in the marches. The Birmingham Board of Education had expelled 1,081 students.

On Wednesday evening, James and his friends learned that Movement lawyers had sued the board and won: the students could return to school.


James attended Case Western Reserve University, where he quickly became a leader, cofounding the university’s Black Student Union Association. After two years in the army, he returned to Birmingham to work as health director for Head Start’s Health Services. He also cofounded the statewide Sickle Cell Anemia Project. Later, he worked with Project Black Awareness, which recruited black students to go to college. James now works in pharmaceuticals. He and his wife live in Atlanta and have four grown children.

Audrey Faye Hendricks | Washington Booker III | Arnetta Streeter | James Stewart