Surrounded by History – and confused

Robert Corley

Robert Corley

Age 15 in 1963

Puzzled by the momentous events surrounding him in 1963, he has spent a lifetime thinking about the meaning – for himself and for the city and the nation.

In the past few years I have realized that growing up in Birmingham and reaching maturity in the 1960s, I was surrounded by History.  At times, it felt like History was literally pulling me into its widening vortex.

I was fifteen in the spring of 1963.  As a white Birmingham teenager observing the critical events in our city at a great distance, I was confused.

I was confused because I did not have enough information to help me understand what was happening. I did not even know that thousands of the jailed demonstrators were my age or younger. I was confused because in my secure white middle class neighborhood, the demonstrations were perceived as dangerous and unprovoked, an insult to the citizens of Birmingham who had removed Bull Connor* from office.

I was confused when I naively sought the opinion of my maid, Ophelia, whom I had known for two-thirds of my life, and who dutifully came to wash our clothes and clean our house twice each week. Ophelia assured me that she did not understand why these young people were stirring up such trouble; she had no problems with the way things were. I was also confused when I arrived at my church one Sunday in April and found a large number of ushers guarding the doors. I was told demonstrators were coming and “we” were not going to “allow them to disrupt our worship of God.”

A popular and exciting event at my high school caused the most confusion.  That spring I had been in the sold out audience at Woodlawn High School for the Warblers Club’s Farewell Minstrel Show.  After more than thirty years, this traditional black-face minstrel — which the Birmingham News said offered the “old familiar songs, the bright young talent, the roars of laughter and the burst of applause…” — was now coming to an end. Standing and cheering in the audience, I yearned to be on the stage. I wanted more than anything to be a Warbler because everyone was having so much fun. And the music was simply glorious. I was 15 and nothing about the Farewell Minstrel offended me. Instead I was thrilled and inspired.

Much later I learned about minstrels, and about those moving and beautiful songs – mostly spirituals whose music and lyrics were composed by enslaved African Americans to reflect their deep pain, but also to express their great hope for eventual liberation. Thus I discovered the culture and spirit of this community of people who were for me and virtually all whites in 1963 still invisible. Only recently have I even recognized the profound irony that this last minstrel was being performed in my all white, legally segregated school at the same moment that Shuttlesworth** and King were plotting to change Birmingham and the nation more profoundly than we ever imagined. As the demonstrations began, the Warblers had wiped the shoe black off their faces just two weeks before.

Since 1963 I have literally spent a lifetime thinking about the real meaning of these events, not just for me, but also for our city and our nation.  The events of 1963 echo through time and resound into the present, shaping and reshaping our response. All of us have been pulled into the vortex of History; History is inescapable. Knowing History — our own and that of our times — is essential if we are to know who we truly are, and how we can give our lives meaning and purpose, as individuals and as a community.

*  Theophilus Eugene “Bull” Connor was Birmingham’s Commissioner of Public Safety during the Civil Rights years. Even after the city voted him out of office in April 1963, Connor directed police and firemen to use dogs and fire hoses against peaceful demonstrators, including children. Dramatic TV reports of the brutality got Americans to pay attention to events in Birmingham and helped turn the tide of the Civil Rights Movement. Passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was all but ensured. For more on Connor, see:
** As pastor of Bethel Baptist Church, Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth led the fight for justice in Birmingham, Alabama, where his house was bombed and he was beaten for his attempts to end segregation. He was a cofounder of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, headed by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and initiated many actions and demonstrations, including the Birmingham Crusade in the spring of 1963. For more, please see and A Fire You Can’t Put Out: The Civil Rights Life of Birmingham’s Reverend Fred Shuttlesworth, by Andrew M. Manis.

Dr. Robert Corley wrote this story in August 2013 for Kids in Birmingham 1963. It is published here with his permission.