We were kids in Birmingham, Alabama, in 1963. That tumultuous year transformed the nation and shaped our lives. These are our stories.

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Chervis Isom

Chervis Isom

Age 23 in 1963

Chervis Isom had grown up in a segregated world, where Jim Crow laws forced separation of the races. The summer of 1961, when he was 21, was the first time he observed those laws being applied against someone he knew and respected. As he says, “It turned out to be a life-changing summer.”

He pointed to large, raised letters near the end of the dusty eight inch steel pipe. With one swipe, I brushed them clean. “Made in Belgium,” I muttered, as if he needed my translation. Then he stalked away. I studied the dozens of identical pipe stacked in the yard. The electric grinder he had given me, now hanging from my hand, seemed wholly inadequate for the job I had been told to do.

As I dithered, trying to figure out the best way to begin, I noticed the colored guy—they called him Arizona—watching me. His neutral face showed no emotion, but I knew he must have been amused to watch a college boy flounder in ignorance and incompetence.

How do I begin? I wondered. Is there a place to sit? If I sit on the pipe, will it roll? There must be a trick to this somehow. Arizona watched quietly. After a few moments, I looked at him. “You done this before?” Read more…

Born with Brown v. Board of Education decision

Gail Horne Ray

Gail Horne Ray

Age 9 in 1963

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. Read more…

’We must be kind”

Nathan Turner Jr.

Nathan Turner Jr.

Age 10 in 1963

The son of school teachers, Nathan had a childhood that was largely protected from racism. Yet there was no escaping the apartheid of Birmingham, Alabama.

In 1963, black people’s hopes and aspirations collided with the heart and mindset of a segregated Birmingham. That confluence led to the civil rights demonstrations and strife that defined the city and Alabama for decades afterward.

That year I was 10.

I lived on Center Way in the (mostly) placid community of South Titusville, in southwest Birmingham. Read more…

We “clicked”

Charlotte Clarke Houston

Charlotte Clarke Houston

Age 13 in 1963

Charlotte, 13, had just made a new friend in August 1963.

My recollection of 1963 centers around gaining a new friend at a swimming outing in August 1963, and losing her in the church bombing a month later. Sixteenth Street Baptist Church had an all-day youth pool outing at Memorial Recreation Center.  I was invited by my paternal aunts, one the long-time organist for the church (Mary Alice Stollenwerck) and the other a long-time member (Myrtle Lumpkin) and teacher. That day I met Addie Mae Collins and we “clicked,” spending all day chatting in the corner of the swimming pool while most of the other kids swam and ran about. I was excited about the closeness we rapidly formed during the day. A month later I was horrified to learn that she was one of the victims of the bombing that killed her and three other girls that I knew by name and family affiliation at church only. Read more…

“In Ourselves Our Future Lies”

James Nelson, Jr.

James Nelson, Jr.

Age 16 in 1963

A young activist growing up in Birmingham, James Nelson, Jr. learned that “nothing really comes easy.”

Just three and a half years after surviving my unhappiest year, 1963, the Birmingham News interviewed four young adults to speak about changes in the New South. In its May 21, 1967 edition, while a student at Miles College, I was recorded saying, “the South is improving, but you learn that you must struggle to achieve something. You learn that nothing really comes easy.”

Indeed, life during the fall of 1963 was far from easy in one old, hateful southern city: Birmingham, Alabama. I was a senior at Ullman High School eagerly awaiting graduation in its winter class. Cynthia Wesley was a fourteen-year-old student at Ullman; I was two years older. We first exchanged flirting glances. Then, through our friends, we passed little innocent notes to each other. After these notes, our friendship blossomed. She was so smart, happy, and full of hope. I still remember her smile that melted away all my shy defenses. Read more…