Gaston Motel

Rand Jimerson

Rand Jimerson

Age 14 in 1963

On accompanying his father, a civil rights worker, from suburban Homewood over Red Mountain to the Gaston Motel, where Martin Luther King, Jr., and others from SCLC were staying, on May 8, 1963, just two days before the motel was bombed.

On Thursday night Dad asked if I wanted to drive into the city with him. He had to drop off something. The VW chugged to the crest of Red Mountain, with the lights of Birmingham spread across the valley below. Down into the city and into the black neighborhood, where I had seldom ventured. We parked in front of the Gaston Motel, where Dr. King and Reverend Shuttlesworth used a second floor office room as campaign headquarters. It was already past my usual ten o’clock bedtime, but crowds of people – mostly black, but a few whites – jammed the small lobby.

For the first time I saw black people wearing colorful African clothing – dashikis, I later learned. One thin figure stood out. A man wearing bib overalls, with a shaved head topped by a skullcap. “That’s Jim Bevel,” Dad said. “A real charismatic young guy.”

Dad told me, “Wait here. I’ll be right back.” Clutching a large envelope, he disappeared into the sea of black faces. It felt as though I were watching a play, with exotic and colorful characters walking quickly through the lobby, or pausing to greet each other, or earnestly talking. Men with thin beards or goatees, shaved heads, long flowing robes, or head coverings unlike any I had seen before.

Soon Dad reappeared, without the envelope. “Busy place,” he observed “Let’s get you home before I get in trouble with your mother!”

The next day, Friday May 10, King, Shuttlesworth, and Abernathy held a press conference in the Gaston Motel courtyard to announce the resolution of their five-week campaign. They announced the terms of negotiations – that demonstrations would end, that blacks would be hired as clerks in some of the stores, that lunch counters would be integrated.

Then came the white backlash.  Late Saturday night the Gaston Motel was bombed in response to the whites caving in to black demands. When I heard the news on Sunday morning, I thought: “I was just there two days ago!”

This story is excerpted from Randall’s memoir Shattered Glass in Birmingham: One Family’s Fight for Civil Rights, 1961-1964, by Randall C. Jimerson, PhD, LSU Press, with the express permission of the author.