In You Have to Be Prepared to Die Before You Can Begin to Live (Celadon, May), journalist Kix recounts the bloody 1963 campaign to desegregate Birmingham, Ala.

The SCLC was in a fragile place before Birmingham. What gave organizers the optimism they could integrate what you describe as “the most segregated, most racist, most violent place in America”?

A lot of the optimism comes down to the organizers having first and foremost a faith in God. All of them were pastors in some way. They all read the Bible front to back, and there’s this quote from the Gospel according to Luke: “The kingdom of God resides within you.” I think those guys internalized the idea that there was this cause within them, that they all deemed as holy, as divine. And it was their duty to honor that divinity because if they did so, they might be able to spread what is honorable and even divine throughout all of America.

What do you make of the decision to recruit children and teenagers to take part in the protests?

This to me is one of the animating questions that I wanted the book to answer: How is it that men of faith could stand by an act that other men of faith saw as deeply, deeply sinful? Frankly, the answer to that question was somewhat cynical. Wyatt Walker, who came up with the Birmingham protest plans, was brilliant. But some people think, and it’s kind of hard for me not to draw the same conclusion, that he was also a little bit immoral. He was the first one to say that we as protestors must escalate the tension by whatever means necessary. But he wasn’t the only one thinking that way. James Bevel pushed hardest for kids to be involved. What Bevel and Walker both realized is, my God, the copy! There’s no way that Walter Cronkite won’t lead the evening news with a story like this. The amazing thing was the kids themselves wanted to protest. They wanted better futures for themselves, and for their own children one day. Protesting felt imperative.

How did the Birmingham Campaign impact the next 60 years of American history?

Well, now, Martin Luther King has momentum. Jack and Bobby Kennedy begin to imagine a world in which they would side with King. The 1964 Civil Rights Law is followed the next year not only by more campaigns like the one in Selma, but also the Voting Rights Act of 1965. That leads ultimately, I believe, not only to King’s death in 1968, but also to a rebirth for the country. It allows a white guy from a farm in Iowa like me to marry my wife, who is Black, in a formerly Jim Crow state like Texas—and to raise our biracial kids, who identify as Black, without harassment. Without the Birmingham Campaign and the spring of 1963, I don’t know exactly what happens for the country. It took 100 years between the Emancipation Proclamation and the Civil Rights Act of 1964.