We were kids in Birmingham, Alabama, in 1963. That tumultuous year transformed the nation and shaped our lives. These are our stories.

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My Dad’s Struggle to Do the Right Thing in Racially Charged Birmingham

David Sher

David Sher

Age 19 in 1963

David Sher’s father was one of Birmingham’s first retailers to hire an African American office worker. That young black man, Bunny Stokes, became a Birmingham business leader.

I grew up in the South in the 1950s.

‘Negroes’ drank from water fountains labeled ‘Colored’; used separate restrooms from whites; and were relegated to sit in the back of buses.

My father owned a small retail store in downtown Birmingham.

We lived on the Southside of Birmingham and I often took the Highland Avenue bus downtown to meet my parents or friends.

My parents taught me and my brother and sister to be respectful, so one day I remember asking my father if it was okay to give up my bus seat to an elderly black woman. He sternly warned that I would risk being hurt by some hateful people.

My dad was kind and respectful to his employees, but at that time there were laws against ‘colored’ office workers and salespeople.

When it became clear that the Civil Rights law was going to pass and rules prohibiting ‘colored’ employment were about to change, my dad took the opportunity to hire a black office worker—likely among the first in a white owned retail store in Birmingham. Read more…

One Sunday morning, September 15, 1963

Pamela Walbert Montanaro

Pamela Walbert Montanaro

Age 18 in 1963

Pam boldly spoke up against racist thought and behavior in her “whites only” school, at a time when “integrationists” were called communists and atheists. She says her parents and their friends “had created a little oasis of sanity in that sea of racism and so at least there, I felt protected and safe.”

September 15, 1963, was the day I was to move into a room near Birmingham Southern College where I was just starting my sophomore year. My family, who had been very active in the Civil Rights Movement for a number of years, lived in Homewood and we were listening to the radio as we packed up the car with my clothes, books and other things that I would be needing that semester. I was to be rooming that year at the home of one of the BSC art professors with Sena Jeter Naslund, who was later to write the novel Four Spirits about that time and that day.

We were devastated when we got the news of the church bombing and the four children who were killed. The McNairs, one of the families whose daughter was killed that day, were friends of my parents.  Although Birmingham Southern was still a “whites only” school at that time, there was a small group of students and professors who supported the Movement and were very engaged. We frequently visited with students and professors at Miles College, the all Black school near BSC. The church bombing was all anyone could talk about for days and, of course, we went to the funeral service at which Martin Luther King spoke. There was an overflow crowd there that day but we managed to get into the top balcony of the church, from which we could hear, but not see, the service below. Read more…

Inspired by our mother, our whole family marched

Janice Houston Nixon

Janice Houston Nixon

Age 8 in 1963

Only 8 years old, Janice joined her family in the marches that shifted Birmingham’s history – and brought dramatic change to the nation. She and her sister made history, too, by desegregating two of Birmingham’s all-white schools.

In thinking back about the Children’s Crusade I have very vivid memories. Even though I was young, I remember very well the terrible things that happened to black people in the 60s. My sister Carolyn Houston was one who did get arrested along with so many others, and she was put in the Birmingham City Jail. She was only 13 years old. My brother James Houston, was one of those who were taken to the Alabama State Fairgrounds.

I remember so well when we picked Carolyn up from the Birmingham City Jail. Read more…

A City, a Mountain, and a Tiny Kingdom

John Bagby

John Bagby

Age 14 in 1963

John Bagby grew up in a home where Margaret Brown cooked, cleaned, and did his family’s laundry. Fifty years later, he wonders what Margaret must have thought as she boarded the bus in downtown Birmingham and headed to Mountain Brook, the well-to-do, all-white suburb that John refers to as “The Tiny Kingdom.”

Margaret Brown lived in Titusville, a neighborhood in Birmingham. Two months before I was born in 1949, she was hired to come and live with my family, and work in our home six days a week as a maid, or “the help,” as folks in Mountain Brook would have said back then. I would imagine that Margaret had dreams like any other young woman: a husband, a family of her own, perhaps. She probably knew she was abandoning those dreams when she took the offer to come cook, clean, and do the laundry for my family. I can only imagine what Margaret was thinking when she boarded the #50 Crestline bus in downtown Birmingham, leaving her world and heading for “The Tiny Kingdom.”  Read more…

Niggertown: How separation distorts our perceptions

Carl Carter

Carl Carter

Age 10 in 1963

Carl Carter recalls that everything about society in Birmingham in the 1950s and 1960s was orchestrated to keep the races separated. Looking at statistics from Birmingham today, he wonders whether that’s really “all behind us.”

My buddy and I had ridden our bikes several blocks to the northwest – farther than we were supposed to. The sun was going down, and we knew it was time to head home. But we looked at the forbidden land just a hundred feet or so away.

That was where they lived, and it was pretty much where they stayed. From years of hearing stories, I imagined streets where chaos ruled. Where knives flickered in every direction, and people lived in ramshackle huts. Where a white man would be dead in minutes if he dared stepped over the line. In my imagination, there was an eerie glow over the neighborhood. Read more…