The school picture
When the bombing of the church occurred and those girls were killed, I was about 10 years old. Our family lived in what was then called Bluff Park (which is now part of Hoover) on Shades Mountain. I was born there, grew up there, attended Bluff Park Elementary school, was an active member of Bluff Park Baptist Church, and had what I thought was an idyllic life. Little did I know what was bubbling all around me.
Unbeknownst to me, my parents had become somewhat involved in the Civil Rights Movement. My mom was a member of PEP (Public Education Peacefully), a group formed of parents who supported keeping the schools open without violence. Also, she attended a women’s prayer group that included women of all religions, races, ethnicities – the first in Birmingham.
If you grew up in the 1950s and 1960s, “school pictures” were a big event. A school photographer came to your school, took individual photos, and then you could buy packets of the photos – in varying sizes. The bigger, exciting deal was to trade these with best friends and of course give some to family members. They cost money, so we had to dole them out sparingly – at least in our household.
After the bombing, my mom went to a service and evidently met the mom of one of the girls who was killed – a girl my age. Mom came home from that, sat me down, and handed me a “school picture” of this girl. Mom said to me, “This little girl is dead only because of the color of her skin.” That’s all she said, and handed me the picture.
I held the photo and looked at it, and thought about how, in our home, attending church was not only the “right” thing to do, it was the safe and sacred place we went to worship. This girl was my age, was at church, in the town where I lived, and she was killed doing what I had grown up to believe “God” meant us to do. It hit me hard and true – it could have been me…..except for the color of my skin. It didn’t make sense, it was wrong, and I was alive only because of the color of my skin. This moment brought it all into vivid, present reality and changed my life.
Watching movies about “life in the south” or hearing stories about it – they cannot capture the true essence of being there in that moment and feeling the earth shift beneath my feet and knowing life will never be safe, comfortable, and “normal” again until there truly is peace among all.
In September 2013, during commemoration of the 1963 bombing of Sixteenth Street Baptist Church, Susie Hale submitted her story to be posted on Kids in Birmingham 1963.