The whole truth
Mom had a long list of values to instill in us. Probably at the top of the list was: “Always tell the truth.” Just as I entered fifth grade, we moved to Birmingham, where that rule was about to get more nuanced: there was “the truth” and there was “the whole truth.”
Dad moved Mom and us four kids to Birmingham so he could join the civil rights movement. He may have been the only white man in the state whose fulltime job was civil rights. Mom and Dad had cautioned us not to talk about Dad’s work. With our teachers, neighbors, and friends, that piece of the truth could mean trouble. We navigated a fine line, technically never telling a lie but holding back most of what mattered to us.
Already, our next door neighbors had sold their house and moved away, fearful that we would sell ours to Negroes. The Vestavia Hills Baptist Church deacons had told our mother that, given Dad’s line of work, everyone would be happier if we didn’t return to their church. And now we’d begun getting anonymous calls with ugly threats, mostly fielded by my big brother Randy. Mom didn’t have to tell us that telling the whole truth might be a matter of life or death.
In September 1963, on the day Klan members bombed the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church killing four black girls, Dad came home with a boxful of broken glass, bits of the stained glass that had flown from the church’s windows. Needing to do something in response, Dad had driven by the church that evening and scooped up the glass, a record of that unfathomable act. He and Mom let us peer into that box and carefully handle the sharp, dusty pieces.
Though it remained in the box, that glass haunted me. Just a couple months later, my seventh-grade art teacher, Miss Lemon, gave me an idea. Announcing that our next project would be about glass, she showed us how a low setting on the ceramics kiln would allow us to turn jagged pieces of glass into smooth-edged, flat, lustrous pieces that we could use to make mosaic patterns. With enough pieces, Miss Lemon told us, you could cover the surface of a coffee table, gluing down the glass and then filling the gaps with grout. Suddenly I imagined an art piece I would create to honor the girls who were killed in the bombing. I needed that glass.
I hadn’t anticipated Mom’s reluctance. Usually she supported my creativity. I kicked up my argument, assuring her the glass would retain its color and shape, just be softened and smoothed. Finally she let me select a few small shards, not nearly enough for my imagined masterpiece. I wrapped them in tissue and carried them to school in a cigar box.
I couldn’t wait for art class that afternoon. I kept running through how I would present this glass to Miss Lemon. I couldn’t guess how she would respond. No one at our all-white junior high school had talked with us about the church bombing. No one, kids or teachers, had expressed the outrage we were allowed to acknowledge at home. Maybe Miss Lemon would be dismissive of my reverence or even refuse to let the glass into the kiln. But I was determined she would know what this glass meant to me, that it was not just broken Coke bottles or bits of window glass like the other kids’ projects.
I waited until I could get Miss Lemon alone near the sink and aimed for nonchalance. As I carefully opened the cigar box, my eyes stung with tears and my voice caught and I stumbled over words as I tried to tell her how I had come by this holy glass. She grasped my meaning and fell respectfully quiet. I knew she felt the power of these shards too. Maybe it hadn’t been safe for her, either, to be outraged, but we shared that private moment of compassion and shame. I thank her still for allowing me to tell the whole truth.
Ann Jimerson, founder of Kids in Birmingham 1963, wrote this piece in November 2013. In September 2013, her family donated a lovely rosette of stained glass from the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church bombing to the Smithsonian’s new National Museum of African American History and Culture (see Lonnae O’Neal Parker’s article in The Washington Post, here and Carol Nunnelley’s Weld for Birmingham story here).