Back to Birmingham, 2023

Olivia Barton Ferriter

Olivia Barton Ferriter

Age 12 in 1963

In 1963, Olivia kept a diary. Reading it 60 years later and reflecting on her life experiences, she is humbled by the stories of other Kids from 1963.

In 1983, as a reporter for The Birmingham News, I wrote several stories looking back at the events of 1963. I worked with other reporters to track down many of the school children who had heeded Dr. Martin Luther King’s call to march in downtown Birmingham. Most of them, like Bernita Roberson Sawyer, had been jailed. She was 14 at the time, not much older than me, and had spent five days in jail. They described what it was like to be in jail as children and recalled how those events had shaped their lives as adults. In June, I wrote a 20-year retrospective on Gov. George Wallace’s “stand in the schoolhouse door” at the University of Alabama. Most of the key figures of that day were still alive, including Deputy U.S. Attorney General Nicholas Katzenbach, who was still angry 20 years later about being made to stand in the sweltering sun while Wallace made his stand in the shade. Then in September, 20 years after the bombing of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church that killed four little girls, I had a front page interview with Chris McNair, the father of one of those girls, Denise. Still bitter about her loss, he talked about making sure her much younger sisters knew the truth of that day. These stories, written in 1983, came on the heels of a broader effort in 1979 by The Birmingham News to examine race relations in Alabama through an award-winning series. We travelled much of Alabama interviewing ordinary and extraordinary people. We wanted to know what had changed…..

I had gone to college out West in the early 1970s, carrying with me the baggage of just being from Birmingham. My goal was to become an environmental writer, but I found myself drawn more and more into the world of politics, which is how I ended up covering George Wallace’s last campaign for governor and eventually Alabama’s congressional delegation in Washington, DC. I never wrote about my own memories of 1963, which are snippets at best and seem so inconsequential compared to others who were in harm’s way that year. I don’t entirely trust my memories even though I’d kept a diary. Small and pink, it is a five-year diary with a tiny lock and only four lines for each day. It invites terseness and the future reporter in me was very succinct. The day of my grandmother’s death, I wrote: “Momma Kate died.” Though brief, each entry is a small window on the world of a 12-year-old in perhaps what was the last year of leading a truly sheltered life. I rode my bike to the village, went to the “dime store,” had spend-the-night parties, went to ballroom dancing, took the bus to see movies downtown, saw To Kill a Mockingbird, went to Sunday School, ate dinner at Joy Young’s. Meanwhile, Daddy would come home from his downtown law practice and tell us things he had seen – including the children marching. I had little idea what else he had seen and heard behind the scenes as the attorney for The Birmingham News, but I was more aware than many kids my age of the impact Martin Luther King was having on Birmingham. Before long, I was no longer allowed to ride the bus downtown with my friends.  After the church bombing, I vaguely remember our preacher telling the congregation that we would leave the front pews open in case Blacks wanted to come worship with us.  I remember staring at those empty pews and thinking that was nice but also a little odd. We Presbyterians never sat in the front pews. Why would anyone else?

I turned 13 just days before President John F. Kennedy was assassinated. For the first time, my diary entries are more detailed as we sat riveted watching Jackie, Caroline and John John in mourning and seeing Lee Harvey Oswald shot and killed on live television. I was a newly minted teenager, but somehow already knew that you sometimes see things you wish you could unsee, but can’t. I am not so grown up all these years later to not be shocked at some of the things I have seen on television and in real life. I cannot erase the memory of seeing the Pentagon on fire on 9/11/2001. I was two blocks from the White House and my husband was at the U.S. Capitol. We had taken our sons to the top of the World Trade Center a year earlier on a bright blue sky morning. The night of 9/11, one of them built a replica of the twin towers with Legos and carefully laid it under the covers next to him. “Mom, I am comforting them.”

After 40 years in Washington, D.C., I moved back to Birmingham in May 2023, with my family. Just as much had changed between 1963 and 1983, Birmingham looks and feels much different to me now.  I haven’t been back long enough to know if things are better or worse, but I am forever optimistic. As we approach the 60th anniversary of the church bombing, I am humbled to read the stories of others who were “Kids” in Birmingham in 1963, and to think about being in the same town that fateful day, some of our lives so similar and others so very different. My hope is that our collective memories will serve to remind current and future generations of all that we can’t just take for granted. I am grateful to be home.

Olivia Barton Ferriter wrote this original story on September 11, 2023, with the express purpose of publishing it on the Kids in Birmingham 1963 website at the 60th anniversary commemoration of the bombing of Sixteenth Street Baptist Church.