Born with Brown v. Board of Education decision

Gail Horne Ray

Gail Horne Ray

9

Gail, age 9, was an active part of Birmingham’s Civil Rights movement, listening to Martin Luther King, Jr. speak, going to marches with her father, and even meeting Rosa Parks. Fifty years later she speaks of being sustained by “our unwavering desire to be free and our faith in God.”


On the day that I was born on May 18, 1954 in Birmingham, Alabama, the newspaper headlines around the country announced that the Supreme Court of the United States had outlawed public school segregation in the case entitled Brown versus Board of Education. Relatives used to tease me and say that when my mother, Quintella Dobbins Horne, a high school teacher, heard that the schools were going to be desegregated, she went into labor. However in 1963, nine years after that decision, after having skipped the second grade, I was in the fourth grade at all-Black Center Street Elementary School.

Until I was approximately eight years old, our family attended Westminster Presbyterian Church. It was pastored by Rev. John W. Rice who was the father of Condoleezza Rice. Condoleezza and I, only a few months apart in age, were in the same Sunday School class. Mrs. Rice was a music teacher and Condoleezza began playing the piano at a very early age. Soon the mothers of other young girls in the neighborhood decided that we should take piano lessons as well, whether we wanted to or not. My Mom also made sure that my younger sister Janet and I took ballet and tap dance lessons.

In 1962 my father, Arthur Horne, moved our membership from Westminster Presbyterian to St. Paul Lutheran Church. It was only six or seven blocks from our old church and both were on 6th Avenue South. My father changed churches because Rev. Rice didn’t encourage direct action in the Civil Rights area. He feared that it would lead to violence which of course it did. Rev. Rice always preached and taught that education was the way for Negroes, as we were called back then, to progress. Later, I discovered that Rev. Rice was also employed as a counselor at Ullman High School where my mother taught. I think that further explains Rev. Rice’s position because teachers and other school employees who involved themselves in the Civil Rights movement would have been fired.

St. Paul was much smaller than Westminster, in some part because there were not that many Black Lutherans in the south. There were even fewer Black Lutheran pastors and consequently, our pastor was White. His name was Joseph W. Ellwanger. Rev. Ellwanger was pastor of St. Paul from 1958 to 1967. He and his family lived next to the church in our neighborhood of Titusville. He was the only White religious leader included in strategy meetings with Martin Luther King, Jr. I was always impressed by the fact that Rev. Ellwanger did not seek to take a leadership role in the established Black organizations. He said that White people were the ones with the race problem and that it was his Christian duty to appeal to them to do the right thing. He led the Birmingham Council on Human Relations and formed an organization called the Concerned White Citizens and he sought to work with like minded White Christians to bring about change. We were a very close knit church and there were activities for the youth at least two or three days of the week including, a few years later, a youth choir conducted by VISTA volunteers. The father of Denise McNair, one of the four girls killed in the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church bombing, was our Sunday School Superintendent.

My father worked for the federal government so it was easier for him to be active in the Civil Rights Movement as compared to my mother. He would take me to hear Martin Luther King, Jr. speak and we went together to some marches. One day he stopped the car and told me to get out and go and speak to a lady that was at the A. G. Gaston Motel, Mrs. Rosa Parks. I remember my Dad traveling to the March on Washington in August 1963 and how I cried to go with him. That was one of the reasons I had to go to the 50th Anniversary of the March this past year (2013).

But I guess most of all I remember all of the bombings. Everyone remembers the one that killed the four little girls. I knew Denise McNair and as I said before her father attended church with us. I attended the funeral and heard Pastor Ellwanger speak and Rev. Martin Luther King do the eulogy. But there were so many other bombings: the Gaston Motel, other churches, houses on what we called Dynamite Hill, and two bombs placed about five blocks from my house on Center Street South and 6th Avenue. These bombs were set for one to go off and after a delay for the other to go off and spray shrapnel after people gathered to see if everyone was all right. But for some reason, probably the grace of God, people did not come out like they had done in the past. I also vividly remember my Dad and other men organizing to guard our church and our neighborhood. I did not know until this year when I returned to a reunion at St. Paul that right after the bombing at Sixteenth Street Baptist Church a call came to St. Paul’s office saying “you’re next.” And I remember one night the police came through the neighborhood and said for everyone to cut their lights out and lay on their floors; and how mad my Mom was when my Dad cut on every light in the house and set on the front porch. After each of these incidents, there was no therapy, no trips to a psychologist, it was just off to school and work the next day. It could have only been our unwavering desire to be free and our faith in God that sustained us.

 

In 2013, Gail Horne Ray wrote her personal story for Kids in Birmingham 1963.