“In church no less.”
I was standing on my grandparents’ front porch in Norwood when I heard the blast at 16th Street Baptist. I remember my immediate thought was “that was a big one.” Sad to think that a 9 year old would be accustomed to explosions. But from our house in Bush Hills I had already heard several. Shotgun blasts were not at all uncommon.
When the news came out, my thought was, “Great, they’re killing us kids now. In church no less.” I had already put some thought into the subject of race relations. My own experiences were at “cognitive dissonance” long before that term was coined. My family, like many others, employed an older Black lady as housekeeper, or “maid” as was the term in those days. I loved Abby dearly. She was one of the sweetest, kindest people I ever knew. Lacking education, she was nonetheless quite intelligent and perceptive. She was part of the generation that “went along to get along” and deferential to whites, but not at all shy about explaining to us kids what that meant for her and her family.
Abby’s daughter-in-law Queenie also worked for us sometimes. She was strikingly pretty in her early twenties and drove a big convertible, Pontiac or Olds I think. I loved riding around in that car blasting WJLN on the radio. She was part of the up and coming generation driving the changes that were happening. I don’t know that she herself was ever involved in any protests per se, instead I think she just adopted a “post-racial” attitude toward life; saw how things should be and acted accordingly. I never saw any anger or bitterness in her, but she wouldn’t tolerate any shenanigans! Not at all deferential, but instead treated us with love and kindness, and a goofy sense of humor. She was great fun to be around.
With these and other examples, by the time of the trouble I had already made up my own mind that segregation, racism, and hatred were absurd. How can you possibly hate a stranger who is 99% exactly like you? Who wants and needs the same things, food, shelter, love, meaningful work? Who feels exactly the same pain and joy as you? The complete artificiality of race as a social construct was beginning to become apparent.
I eventually moved to California. Here I learned not to tell folks where I was from until I got to know them a little, lest they think ill of me and not want to socialize (prejudice takes many forms). I adopted more of a “Midwestern” accent. Alabama’s image was severely tarnished, and remains so. Sad, because there is much good there.
Mike Marston wrote this story for Kids in Birmingham 1963. It is published here in 2013 with his express permission.