It’s a place I’ll be drawn to for the rest of my life
I was 7, maybe 8, when I begged my father to take me to see a movie called The Shaggy Dog and had to enter the downtown Melba Theater through an alley stairway that led to the balcony where black folks had to sit. The place was filthy. I was embarrassed and sorry I had talked my dad into taking me. It was the last time I ever asked such a favor.
Our social life revolved around the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church. There was something going on there seven days a week; potluck dinners, plays, music, activities for the kids. One Emancipation Day, Jackie Robinson, the first black player welcomed into the major leagues, came to speak to the congregation. It was a wonderful place where everyone felt at home, safe.
That changed on Sunday, September 15, 1963, when an exploding package of dynamite, put in place the night before by Ku Klux Klan members, killed four girls in the church basement.
That morning, my mother, a schoolteacher, had dropped me and my younger brother Kenneth off at the church before returning home to complete her lesson plans, which were due the next morning. Our father had a second job at the A.G. Gaston Motel just around the corner from the church. He had planned to hear me play the clarinet with the church orchestra for Youth Sunday, but he got called in to work at the last minute.
Sunday school had ended, and several of us were sitting in the library in the church basement, talking about school starting and what kind of football team Parker High was going to have. Then the room shook, and I saw lightbulbs explode. This huge bookshelf began rocking. Then everything went dark, and the air was filled with dust and the smell of the dynamite. I could hear adults screaming upstairs.
We had no idea what had happened, but everyone started running, shoving, trying to find their way out of the church. I followed a light in the stairwell, and left by the side entrance. I got to the door, and this police officer was standing there. To this day I wonder how he got there so quickly. As I tried to make my way out, he put out his arms and said, “Nigger, get back in there.” I just ducked under his arm and kept running.
On the street in front of the church I saw people crying. Many were bleeding, cut by flying shards of glass. I realized I didn’t know where my little brother was. I ran back into the church, down to the room where he was supposed to be, and couldn’t find him. On the way back out I swung by the library and picked up my clarinet.
When I got outside I saw several kids standing with a lady who was a good friend of my grandmother. She waved at me and pointed to Ken, who was with her, crying. A few minutes later, I saw my father running down the sidewalk toward the church. I’d never seen my father run before, nor do I remember him ever being quite as demonstrative as he was that day. He got to where we were and hugged us, repeatedly asking if we were OK. He even made my brother take off his shirt so he could make sure he wasn’t bleeding anywhere.
Dad took us to his hotel office and began trying to call home to let our mother know we were OK, but of course the phone lines were overloaded and he couldn’t get through to her. The lobby of the motel was chaos. People were on the phones, trying to make calls. Dad finally got in touch with my grandmother and asked her to go over to our house and tell my mother we weren’t hurt.
It wasn’t until later in the day that our family heard a radio report announcing the deaths of the four children. Cynthia Wesley, one of the girls who died, was also a clarinet player and sat next to me in the orchestra. Carole Robertson’s mother had grown up with my mother. The McNairs were close friends of our family, and we had often given Addie Mae Collins a ride home from church.
The next day, our mother delivered food to the homes of our friends who had died and then, along with 8,000 others, attended the funerals at which the Reverend Martin Luther King delivered moving eulogies.
I grew up a lot in those days after the bombing, realizing how precious and tenuous life really was. What I’ve tried to do is give something of myself that might fill the void left by those little girls. I’ve attempted to do some of the things they weren’t able to.
When Tom Blanton, one of the men finally indicted for the crime, was tried, I was in the courtroom to hear the guilty verdict.
Whenever I go home, one of the first places I visit is the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church. I’ve been there hundreds of times, but the next time I’m there, I’ll go again. It’s a place I’ll be drawn to for the rest of my life.
Much of Dale Long’s story as he tells it here first appeared in an article in the Dallas Observer, “Bearing Witness,” by Carlton Stowers, published in July 2002. Kids in Birmingham 1963 shares it here with the permission of Dale Long and the Dallas Observer.