Everyone knows the history, knows that Birmingham was aka the most segregated city in the nation, knows that Birmingham was aka Bombingham, and if they don’t know the litany of events in 1963 — well, they ought to.
American history is yoked to civil rights history. It’s what we’re founded on, what we have grandly succeeded at and dismally failed at.
Birmingham is not just in the Heart of Dixie, it is smack at the heart of our Great American Paradox, a constant tug of war between civil rights and civil wrongs.
Birmingham was, as has been said, ground zero of the civil rights movement in 1963; it was also ground zero for my coming of age. A time and place so fraught with momentous events and emotions, from the most personal to the most worldly, that a 17 year old could be rocketed through a lifetime of experience simply by paying attention.
Maybe I paid too much attention. (more…)
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…)
1963 changed my life. The tensions were growing, and everyone was on edge. Then, Easter morning between Sunday School and church, a couple of us dashed over to the local drug store in Homewood—a block from our very big Southern Baptist Church—to read comics and buy gum. As we walked back to our church, a car filled with African Americans pulled into our front parking lot. They stopped briefly, and I looked up to see what they were seeing. The church deacons were standing at the top of the stairs, their arms locked together as if they were playing Red Rover. Then they slowly walked down the stairs with their arms locked together. Their message was clear—they were not going to allow the African Americans to enter our church to worship with us.
Later my mother said, “Those people didn’t come to worship.” I told her I didn’t think Mr. P and Mr. H came to worship either. They were officers of the large insurance company headquartered in Birmingham, and used their church connections for business. I’ll never forget the look of determination on their hard faces.
In May, the protests began in downtown Birmingham. (more…)
In 1963 I had never thought about why my school was attended by whites only. The only black person I knew was Spicy, the woman who came to our home one day a week to iron.
Then, one Spring day when I was a Junior at Woodlawn High School, every class received an announcement that there would be a march of black students, and that these students would pass in front of our school. We were instructed to remain inside. We were instructed to be quiet.
My teacher was wise enough to know we would not be able to stay in our seats, so we were allowed to go to the window when the black students passed by like a parade. There was no sound, no shouting, no raised hands. Just silence. I watched a group of about 50 male and female students, just like me except for the color of their skin, walk in unison. I knew from other events at that time that they wanted an equal education, an equal opportunity to succeed. That touched my heart.
That day—that silent march of teenagers—changed me. I saw people with hopes and dreams and desires—just like me.
In 1963, my family and I lived on the North side of Birmingham, on the infamous “Dynamite Hill.” My father was Executive Vice President and Manager of Citizen’s Federal Savings and Loan Association, the city’s sole black owned financial institution. My mother was a teacher and administrator at Miles College, the local Historically Black College (HBCU). My parents shielded my sister and me from the civil rights struggle as long as they could. For example, when a bomb went off in the night, my mother would say, “That was a truck backfiring. Go back to sleep.” And when we would drink from water fountains labeled, “White,” while shopping downtown, she would pretend not to notice, and call us quietly to her side. Ours was a happy childhood, despite the tension, violence and turmoil brewing around us.
Education was extremely important in our household. My father had earned a Bachelor’s Degree and a Law Degree at North Carolina Central University (NCCU) through the GI Bill. He and my mother met at NCCU in the late 1940s and were married after they both graduated. In 1963, my mother had an opportunity to pursue a Master’s Degree at the University of Indiana on scholarship. My parents decided she would go to Bloomington on her own for a year with my sister and me in tow to complete the course work. We left my father in Birmingham and moved to Indiana late summer, 1963. (more…)