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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Just three and a half years after surviving my unhappiest year, 1963, the Birmingham News interviewed four young adults to speak about changes in the New South. In its May 21, 1967 edition, while a student at Miles College, I was recorded saying, “the South is improving, but you learn that you must struggle to achieve something. You learn that nothing really comes easy.”
Indeed, life during the fall of 1963 was far from easy in one old, hateful southern city: Birmingham, Alabama. I was a senior at Ullman High School eagerly awaiting graduation in its winter class. Cynthia Wesley was a fourteen-year-old student at Ullman; I was two years older. We first exchanged flirting glances. Then, through our friends, we passed little innocent notes to each other. After these notes, our friendship blossomed. She was so smart, happy, and full of hope. I still remember her smile that melted away all my shy defenses. Read more…
Mom had a long list of values to instill in us. Probably at the top of the list was: “Always tell the truth.” Just as I entered fifth grade, we moved to Birmingham, where that rule was about to get more nuanced: there was “the truth” and there was “the whole truth.”
Dad moved Mom and us four kids to Birmingham so he could join the civil rights movement. He may have been the only white man in the state whose fulltime job was civil rights. Mom and Dad had cautioned us not to talk about Dad’s work. With our teachers, neighbors, and friends, that piece of the truth could mean trouble. We navigated a fine line, technically never telling a lie but holding back most of what mattered to us. Read more…
At 1 p.m. 50 years ago today I was in my 8th grade gym class when we heard the radio report over the PA system announcing the President’s death. The South had begun to turn against JFK due to his speeches advocating civil rights. Coach Little, a proud former Marine, stood in front of our class and announced that if he heard anyone laugh or giggle or saw anyone smile, he would ”take them down.” He was an intimidating figure and we knew he meant what he said. We stood at attention for about 30 minutes before we were told to get dressed and school was dismissed early. We went home wondering what the future held for us. As John Lee Hooker observed, it was a mighty time.
Dad had color guard duty, but there was no flag.
It was a pretty simple task: You stood around in the front of Woodlawn Baptist Church to make sure nobody of the wrong color wandered in by mistake. Dad let me stay outside with the men. He liked having me around, and maybe he figured I’d learn something.
Color guard was an important job, because colored folks trying to attend a white church were bound to create trouble. We had one try every now and then – not when I was out there, but I heard about it – and they were advised to go worship with their own kind. Read more…
50 years ago today I was a sophomore at Phillips High School in Birmingham and in class when we were told President Kennedy had been shot and later died. I went numb with shock and fear. Our leader was gone. What would happen next? What I remember most vividly was how sickened I was that some of my classmates actually cheered. I had been inspired by his call to public service but others hated him for what was going on in Birmingham regarding desegregation. An ugliness I would have to deal with most of my life growing up in Birmingham was revealed as its most evil self in those cheers.