September 15, 1963: The Day our Driver Changed Course

Robert G. Williams

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Trigger alert: This essay contains a racial slur used by some white people at that time to demean Black children as a group.

Our family lived on a wooded hilltop in the white suburb of Mountain Brook, protected from sleepless nights of bombings and police oppression plaguing Black families in the Magic City. My few glimpses of struggles for justice downtown were through safety glass windows of a 1959 Chevrolet station wagon that sported jet fins, a V-8 engine, and could haul up to a dozen kids.

On Mother’s Day 1961 when I was age twelve, Mama drove my siblings and me downtown to the Trailways station to pick up our cousin from Mississippi. There was no place to park out front. A crowd milled around, spilling out of the station. Mama noted how strange there were no officers or police cars anywhere. She double-parked. Leaving the engine running, she instructed my older brother, “Go in, find Stevie, grab his bags and bring him back immediately.” “Robert, climb in the back and open the tailgate window.” While my brother was inside, a half dozen white men toting tire irons, bats, and chains rushed toward the rear of the station, almost tripping over each other as if late for an event. Finally, my brother and Stevie emerged from the front of the station. I took Stevie’s suitcase, and the two of them piled in the middle seat. Mama scratched off before I could close the tailgate window.

The front page of the next day’s newspaper featured a circle of white men taking turns beating an unidentifiable victim on the floor. (more…)

Marching for freedom led to many days in jail

What I remember most about our marching in 1963, was my being jailed after leaving Sixteenth Street Baptist Church, making it to City Hall, and being thrown in the paddy wagon with all guys! Being kept at the Fairgrounds, and later being sent to the County Jail, for taking part in trying to stop one of the police officers from raping one of the girls. I was kept in a sweat box for days upon days, and kept in jail over a month before my family located me! They kept saying I was too young to be there, but they tried to lose me. (more…)

Born with Brown v. Board of Education decision

Gail Horne Ray

Age

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On the day that I was born on May 18, 1954 in Birmingham, Alabama, the newspaper headlines around the country announced that the Supreme Court of the United States had outlawed public school segregation in the case entitled Brown versus Board of Education. Relatives used to tease me and say that when my mother, Quintella Dobbins Horne, a high school teacher, heard that the schools were going to be desegregated, she went into labor. However in 1963, nine years after that decision, after having skipped the second grade, I was in the fourth grade at all-Black Center Street Elementary School.

Until I was approximately eight years old, our family attended Westminster Presbyterian Church. It was pastored by Rev. John W. Rice who was the father of Condoleezza Rice. Condoleezza and I, only a few months apart in age, were in the same Sunday School class. Mrs. Rice was a music teacher and Condoleezza began playing the piano at a very early age. Soon the mothers of other young girls in the neighborhood decided that we should take piano lessons as well, whether we wanted to or not. My Mom also made sure that my younger sister Janet and I took ballet and tap dance lessons. (more…)

“In Ourselves Our Future Lies”

James Nelson, Jr.

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Just three and a half years after surviving my unhappiest year, 1963, the Birmingham News interviewed four young adults to speak about changes in the New South. In its May 21, 1967 edition, while a student at Miles College, I was recorded saying, “the South is improving, but you learn that you must struggle to achieve something. You learn that nothing really comes easy.”

Indeed, life during the fall of 1963 was far from easy in one old, hateful southern city: Birmingham, Alabama. I was a senior at Ullman High School eagerly awaiting graduation in its winter class. Cynthia Wesley was a fourteen-year-old student at Ullman; I was two years older. We first exchanged flirting glances. Then, through our friends, we passed little innocent notes to each other. After these notes, our friendship blossomed. She was so smart, happy, and full of hope. I still remember her smile that melted away all my shy defenses. (more…)

On Whose Shoulders I Stand

Deborah J. Walker

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I am an African-American, a woman, a born and bred Southerner, and a Christian. I’m college educated and a heterosexual baby boomer. I am middle class, temporarily ablebodied, and a citizen of the world. Each identity shapes how I show up in the world. The first four formed the core foundation for my worldview and my purpose in the world.

I grew up in segregated Birmingham, Alabama, in the 1960s. My memories of dogs and fire hoses, dynamite bombings, and senseless killings shaped my view of the world and my role in it. I too was shaped by the courage of my childhood friends marching in the streets and going to jail and by the fearless determination of the village of adults who tried to create a sense of normality in the face of unabridged hate. I was supported by a faith-filled family who believed that ultimately God was in charge. Against this backdrop, my strongly held fears and my growing rage lived side-by-side.

On September 15, 1963, fear and rage erupted into a powerful passion to fight injustice at any cost. (more…)