Their venom surprised me
For the most part, I was oblivious to the summer of violence that ensued. But one thing I will never forget about those days is one of my rare interactions with white people. I was just about to cross a well-traveled street on my way to the store when a pickup truck whizzed by with two or three white kids in the back who yelled something about “nigger” at me.
Their venom surprised me because it was so unexpected. I remember wondering how they could hate me when they didn’t even know me. Did whoever was driving the truck really intend to hit me? But just how far hatred can take a person toward depravity became more apparent within a matter of days when Sixteenth Street Baptist Church was bombed on Sept. 15, 1963, killing four little girls.
One of the children, Denise McNair, 11, went to my elementary school. Her mother taught there, and her father was a milkman for the dairy that delivered to our house. Also killed in the bombing were Cynthia Wesley, Addie Mae Collins, and Carole Robertson, all 14. But two other black youths were also killed that day. Johnny Robinson, 16, was shot in the back by police, and Virgil Ware, 13, was shot by two white kids as he rode his bicycle.
That night, my father and other black men in neighborhoods across Birmingham got out their guns and stood guard under porch lights. They fully expected to be engaged in a race war. Now 10, I was more curious than afraid. I had heard the church blast from my home. I still couldn’t understand a level of hatred that led strangers to kill strangers because they looked different.
Fifty years later, the hatred has subsided, but it’s not gone. Many of the visceral reactions to President Obama’s election had nothing to do with his politics. Still, these are better times. Segregation is dead. Racists can’t get away with what used to be sanctioned by law. Racism birthed the educational and health disparities that continue among blacks, but the right economic policies, even if applied in a color-blind fashion, could be their cure.
In the weeks ahead, there will be many commemorations of 1963 – in Birmingham, in particular, which for decades tried to forget those bad, old days before realizing the best way to overcome that history is by confronting it. Today, the city’s Civil Rights Institute is both a tribute to the past and the physical embodiment of a town’s collective sigh of relief that that was then and this is now.
We all must remember the past, so as not to repeat it.
This story is excerpted from an article, “The memories of a black child in Birmingham,” by Harold Jackson, first published in the Philadelphia Inquirer on February 24, 2013, and used here with the express permission of the author.