“In Ourselves Our Future Lies”

James Nelson, Jr.

James Nelson, Jr.

Age 16 in 1963

A young activist growing up in Birmingham, James Nelson, Jr. learned that “nothing really comes easy.”

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. During this time, I was also active in my St. Paul Lutheran Church youth group and served as President of the Alabama Youth Lutheran Conference.

Oh what promising experiences that naïve teenager knew.

Suddenly, on Sunday morning, September 15, racists bombed the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, killing Cynthia Wesley. Three other young girls and two boys also died that day, including a younger girl I knew, Denise McNair, who lived four blocks away. I remember joining dozens of students at Ullman High who defied the principal’s orders by attending a memorial service for Cynthia. Moving through the agonized mourners, closer and closer to Cynthia’s casket, I wept. What a beautiful life those racists had just ended. During that sad time, happiness appeared quite remote.

Toy giveawayMy minister at St. Paul Lutheran Church, Joseph Ellwanger, was a white pastor of an African American congregation. During the summer of 1963, when I was President of our youth group, Pastor Ellwanger invited several white students from the North to join us. We decided to test the new integration laws. We drove to the notorious Fairfield cinema just about two blocks from local KKK (Ku Klux Klan) headquarters. In the lobby, angry whites hurled obscenities and racist taunts. The manager appeared and asked us to leave. While we were leaving, people knocked me to the ground and threw bottles at us. We sped off.

Our active civil rights activities required continuous guarding of our church and parsonage all night, every night. Our Church was thoroughly searched and the area inspected before each worship service or group activity. Guards remained on duty during worship service each Sunday watching while we prayed. While our church was spared destruction, one night we awoke to several loud bombings a few blocks away near the library.

But through it all, we maintained a ray of hope. Marching in our Ullman High graduating class on January 26, 1964, we aptly chose our Class Motto “In Ourselves Our Future Lies.” Through blood, tears, and committed actions, this motto captured what I learned in 1963.


In 2013, following his visit to Birmingham for 50th anniversary events including the unveiling of the Four Spirits monument and reunions of friends from church and school, James Nelson, Jr., wrote this story for Kids in Birmingham 1963.