Easter Sunday 1963

Katherine Ramage

Katherine Ramage

11

Integrating the downtown white churches was one strategy of the Birmingham Civil Rights Movement. Fifty years ago my father was the minister of the First Presbyterian Church in Birmingham.


Recollections of an 11 year old

Daddy asked the session of the church to support his stance that the doors remain open to anyone who wanted to worship within.

On Easter Sunday 1963 my best friend, and “blood sister,” Kathy, and I, with a concealed collection of snacks we had bought on our trip to the drugstore between Sunday school and church, headed up to the balcony as usual. Kathy and I did everything together, and we sat wherever we pleased in church since we were almost twelve.

I asked her if she knew about the Negroes coming to church that day. She said, “I know” which I doubted because she always said she knew the latest news whether she did or not. I made sure to get her interest up though by telling her that Daddy said TV cameras would be coming after church. I didn’t tell her his plan to let us out early so we would all be gone when they arrived. For once I was secretly hoping for a longer sermon so we could be on TV.

Kathy and I squeezed into the front row of the balcony rather than heading directly to the back, as we did most of the time. We weren’t fooling around this Sunday. We were standing singing “Jesus Christ Has Risen Today” at the top of our lungs along with the rest of the church and the choir, with our eyes glued to the center aisle of blood red carpet stretching out below us. My eyes moved to the sunlight that was pushing through the stained glass windows that wouldn’t let us see outside during church. The rich red and blue colors of Jesus and John the Baptist’s robes and the bright white lamb put me in mind of the Holy Ghost, both transcendent and spooky.

Kathy and I stood dead still and fell silent when they walked into our sight. The choir kept singing. They were finely dressed walking arm-in-arm, bravely, like two Joan of Arcs, heads held high and proud, their shoulders square. They were two Negro young women holding on to each other tightly in a fancy downtown church of all white people. They looked straight ahead and kept walking down that long red carpet.

I couldn’t see their faces but I could tell they were brave because everybody was looking at them and they didn’t take the first open seat, or the second. As they passed rows, I saw members of the congregation in the side sections peel off and walk right out of the church.

The young women walked all the way down to the second row. Kathy’s daddy moved over and motioned them in. I felt so relieved and was certain that he and my daddy had cooked up a plan for him to do just that because Dr. Joe didn’t make a habit of sitting up front.

Daddy delivered the shortest Easter sermon in history that day, and I did not listen to a word of it. Then it was over – “May the Lord bless you and keep you and may his face shine upon you both now and forever. Amen.”

Daddy walked out after the choir, down that long red aisle to the front door to greet each and every Christian who had made it through church that day.

Kathy and I practically knocked people over racing down the narrow steps from the balcony to the front door to greet the TV cameras. We ran out on the sidewalk to make our TV debuts and to give our regards to the visiting ladies. They seemed famous to us.

There were no TV cameras because we did let out early. All we saw were the regular church folks milling around. Some were smiling, but a lot of the ladies had wrinkles in their foreheads and looked slightly hysterical or way too calm. We froze like everyone else to watch Daddy greet the Negro ladies as they appeared at the big double doors on their way out. They were still walking with their arms locked. Then they disappeared in the blink of an eye into a waiting car at the curb.

Reflections of a 61 year old

The Letter from the Birmingham Jail was never delivered to my father or the seven other white clergy to whom it was addressed. The eight clergymen went down in history as obstructing the progress of the Civil Rights Movement in Birmingham. Forgotten are their public pleas to respect desegregation laws, to move forward, and to remain non-violent. Segregationists criticized my father as a desegregationist, and desegregationists criticized him for dragging his feet.

My father opposed segregation and stayed true to his initial decision to welcome anyone who came to worship into the church, and the church’s session continued to support him. The church members, who left the Easter service when the African American women entered the church, formed a faction that accused my father and his loyal Director of Christian Education, Alice Scott Lowe, of being Communists, the worst accusation they could muster in the post-WWII and Red Scare years. They stirred dissent within the church. My father was bullied from the outside too by the White Citizen’s Council, the KKK and other violent segregationists. After the horrific 16th Street Baptist Church bombing, my father visited the families of the four young girls who were killed, and the one who lived, but he was too fearful of the consequences at the time to tell anyone, even my mother. He faced death traps, threats to his children, and the constant harassment of a factionalized congregation. In a fictionalized story I wrote of this time, my father was shot in front of the church. It is not an unrealistically contrived scene. This was an unspoken fear we carried with us at the time.

My father told us that he reached a point where he looked out at his friends and foes in the congregation he had served and thought, “It’s time to go.” With his health barely intact and his fifth child just born on November 25, 1963, the day of President Kennedy’s funeral, he and my mother made the decision to leave Birmingham, my mother’s place of birth and my father’s post for 19 years, leaving the church of their lives, where my mother and father were married and all of their children baptized. In January 1964, having given our pets away and packed our home into a van, my parents plus five kids piled suitcases, favorite belongings, and whatever adventurous spirits we could muster into our cars to drive away from dear friends, family, and the only world I had ever known. Ironically, when we thought we were safely out of harm’s way, my father suffered a life-threatening heart attack, which struck two months after our arrival in Houston, TX – truly a broken heart. Years later in 1981, my father died believing that none of his actions in Birmingham 1963 much mattered to anyone.

But Birmingham 1963 continues to run in my blood. The lessons of racism and injustice that I learned were potent enough for a lifetime – influencing my passions, my work, my choice of friends, my perspectives on religion, my family life, and my politics.

In 2013, 50 years later, the First Presbyterian Church of Birmingham is honoring Edward Vandiver Ramage, D.D. for his stance, his vision and for changing the mission of the church. I wish he could be there.