One Sunday morning, September 15, 1963
September 15, 1963, was the day I was to move into a room near Birmingham Southern College where I was just starting my sophomore year. My family, who had been very active in the Civil Rights Movement for a number of years, lived in Homewood and we were listening to the radio as we packed up the car with my clothes, books and other things that I would be needing that semester. I was to be rooming that year at the home of one of the BSC art professors with Sena Jeter Naslund, who was later to write the novel Four Spirits about that time and that day.
We were devastated when we got the news of the church bombing and the four children who were killed. The McNairs, one of the families whose daughter was killed that day, were friends of my parents. Although Birmingham Southern was still a “whites only” school at that time, there was a small group of students and professors who supported the Movement and were very engaged. We frequently visited with students and professors at Miles College, the all Black school near BSC. The church bombing was all anyone could talk about for days and, of course, we went to the funeral service at which Martin Luther King spoke. There was an overflow crowd there that day but we managed to get into the top balcony of the church, from which we could hear, but not see, the service below.
My parents, Jim and Eileen Walbert, had moved to Birmingham in 1947. My father taught piano lessons during the day and played piano for supper clubs and parties in the evening and on weekends. My mother, who had been a singer in her home state of Virginia and later in New York City, did occasional part time work, but, like most other wives and mothers of her day, was a “stay at home” mom and prodigious volunteer.
My parents were introduced to the Civil Rights Movement by their friends Anny and Frederick Kraus who were refugees from Europe during World War II and had been active since their arrival in Birmingham where Frederick worked in the VA hospital and the University of Alabama at Birmingham Medical Center. From the mid fifties on, the Movement became my mother’s primary work, as a volunteer—and a very devoted one. She was very involved in school desegregation and provided support and counseling to the young people who integrated Shades Valley High School that had been “whites only” when my brother David and I attended. In 1965, she and my brother marched in Selma in support of voters’ rights. David later opened the first integrated coffee house in Birmingham called Society’s Child and performed there with an integrated band that featured future Broadway and television star Nell Carter.
By 1963 I had already had a number of experiences standing up for the human and civil rights of the Black community of Birmingham—in school, in my neighborhood and in—of all places—in our church. I was determined to interrupt racist comments and behavior whenever and however I could. My friends all knew that racist language was not tolerated in our home and my public school teachers soon came to know that if racist comments were uttered in class, my hand would be raised in protest immediately. At that time, “integrationists” were considered communists and atheists, so the views of my family were ridiculed and vilified. But my parents and their friends had created a little oasis of sanity in that sea of racism and so, at least there, I felt protected and safe.
As the ‘60s marched on, our family also became involved in the protests of the Vietnam War. My brother was a conscientious objector to that war.
I left Birmingham in 1964 to go to theater school in New York City. I married and raised six children and we eventually moved to a farm in Maine where my husband built a summer theater and theater school. Around the time that my youngest child was ready to start Kindergarten, I got involved in another movement—the Central America Solidarity Movement. It was then that I discovered the parallels between the oppression of African Americans in the South and the oppression of peoples of color all over the Americas and the world, historically and currently. It was quite a revelation and contributed to my understanding that oppression and exploitation are key dynamics in human history that must be addressed and that those who do address them are engaged in valid, even vital areas of study and work.
The first movement I ever knew, the Civil Rights Movement in the South, was a profoundly spiritual movement, run by Black ministers. I felt safe in the bosom of the Black Church because I knew the cause was just and that the method of achieving justice—nonviolent passive resistance—was not only right, but could lead to the transformation of all humankind, based as it was in the wisdom and compassion found in sections of the Bible and other religious and philosophical/ethical traditions. The same was true of the Central America Solidarity Movement as so many people from the very progressive Liberation Theology Movement were involved.
In many ways, as painful as it was at times, I am so grateful for having had the opportunity to come of age in Birmingham, Alabama, otherwise known at the time as “Bombingham.” I was a witness from a very early age to the cruelty and horrors that human beings are capable of inflicting on each other, but also of the magnificent heights that humans can reach when they approach these evils with wisdom and love. The Southern Civil Rights Movement set a very high standard that I have endeavored to follow my entire adult life and to pass on to my children and grandchildren. We don’t always succeed—far from it—but we always have that model to fall back on in times of frustration and need, such as we are experiencing on the US political front at this time in 2017.
As Martin Luther King said, in those dark days after the bombing of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church, “If the inexpressible cruelties of slavery could not stop us, the opposition we now face will surely fail,” and quoting the abolitionist Theodore Parker, as he often did, “the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice.” Although my faith may falter at times, I really do believe that humankind is capable of realizing this beneficent state.
Pamela Walbert Montanaro wrote this story expressly for Kids in Birmingham 1963, in December 2017. It is published here with her permission.