My twin sister and I hoped our small efforts made a difference
My family moved to Birmingham 4/15/62 because our father was sent there by the Baptist Sunday School Board (now Lifeway Christian) in Nashville, TN to build a new Baptist Book Store, which he did. My identical twin sis, Leah, and I were 12 years old in April (turned 13 that May) and were enrolled in Mountain Brook Junior High. Our parents had always bought the best house they could afford just within the best school district, and Mountain Brook was it when we moved there. Two horrific dates from 1963 that will forever be etched in our memories were the bombing of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church and the assassination of President Kennedy. Leah and I turned 14 years old in May, 1963.
We were at church at the all-white First Baptist Church close to the black church and our building shook and glass broke out of some windows when the blast went off. Some of the men went outside to see what had happened then came in and told us. Our family was so angered and saddened by that terrible act. Our Mama and our pastor, Earl Stallings, collected money and I don’t remember what else to help the people of the black church. We did not attend the funeral as our parents thought we were too young but we were 14 and at or close to the ages of the four young black girls who died in the blast. Over the years my sis and I have tried to stay in touch with the families of the members of the church and have contributed toward memorials and other things.
Leah and I were in Gym class at Mountain Brook Junior High when it was announced over the PA system that President John F. Kennedy had been shot and assassinated. Our Gym teacher was Mrs. Robinson. Most of the other students and Mrs. Robinson clapped and cheered after hearing the announcement while Leah and I looked at each other and burst into tears. It was horrifying to us but the reaction of everyone else was typical of the white people in Birmingham at the time and we so did not understand any of them. Was not the way we were raised although we had grown up in and still lived in an all-white world.
Over the years our father welcomed Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., into the book store where they would sit and talk and once Papa went to lunch with Dr. King to a black Bar-B-Que restaurant. The all-white staff in the store were not happy with this but Papa was delighted to have Dr. King and told the staff that this was the way it was going to be. We just wish Papa had invited him to the house so we could have met him. Opportunity lost, as we were in school.
Leah and I went to Shades Valley High School in Homewood as Mountain Brook did not have its own high school at the time. On the first day of school in September 1966, my senior year, I walked into homeroom and at a desk smack dab in the middle of the room sat a black girl. The white kids were all lined up with their backs against the walls and windows because not one of them was about to be the first to have to sit next to this girl. I looked at her, looked at the white kids again then went over, sat at a desk next to her, put out my hand and said, “Hi! I’m Myra Evelyn Horn.” She shook my hand and said, “Hi! I’m Cynthia Ann Jackson,” and we have been friends ever since. Just did what our parents had taught us and that was that all people are created equal in the eyes of God. The first time we went to visit the Jacksons in their house, Cynthia’s mother told us she didn’t think any white people had ever been in the neighborhood as visitors, just as “official” people. When we left their house there were black people standing in their front yards and driveways watching for us. We waved at all of them. The summer we graduated Papa, hired Cynthia to work in the office at the book store and the white employees there were no more pleased with that than they were with the visits of Dr. King to the store. Papa told them, again, that this was how it was going to be and if anyone did not wish to continue to work there they were free to leave.
Cynthia and I went to the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa my first two years of college and I met more black kids through her. I actually had more black friends than white because most of the white kids were not interested in having black friends or being friends with someone who did. I have to say here that even with my being friends with Cynthia and her vouching for me the other blacks were quite suspicious, skeptical and distrustful of me until I was around them enough to prove myself to be a genuine and true friend. One of the black kids and I became best friends. His name was Moses Jones and we were at the forefront of everything, joined at the hip. We all organized marches against segregation to the town square in downtown Tuscaloosa and did many of these while the good, old white boys drove their pickups with gun racks loaded around and around us. Papa swore that while I was in Tuscaloosa his hair turned white! Not true as his hair was already turning white when he got out of the Navy in WWII. He also told me that the Tuscaloosa Sheriff called him and told him that they were trying to watch out for me but couldn’t promise anything. Tuscaloosa was at that time the home of the Grand Dragon of the Alabama Ku Klux Klan. I really was in the thick of it and stood out like a sore thumb I’m sure. Leah was attending Jefferson State and made many black friends there and many of her black friends and mine came to visit at our house and we went places in and around Birmingham with them. I clearly remember going with Leah, Cynthia, and one of our white friends, Susannah, to a movie theater in Roebuck to see “Love Story” and we were the only ones who actually watched the movie as all the white people spent the entire movie craning their necks to watch us. Moses, on one of his visits to our house, told my mother while I was out of the room that I was the only person in his entire life who when I looked at him did not see a black boy, but just a boy.
Two events happened that were hilarious to me and that were a direct result of my having black friends. The first was when the dorm mother sent me a summons to come to her office for a talk. Her name was Mrs. Morgan and she was from Lowndes County, Mississippi. We called her “Mammy” Morgan (not to her face, of course, but among ourselves) because she was truly a racist and we did not like her. She would stare at us with a frown on her face and her arms crossed whenever we were near her, and her eyes would follow us. It was a derogatory term and we were racist in using it but she deserved it. I knew immediately what the “talk” was going to be about and so did my friends. On the appointed day at the appointed time I dressed demurely and went downstairs to the lobby of the dorm. My black friends were there en masse and the sight of them and the love and support they were showing me brought tears to my eyes. I knocked on the office door and went in. I stood before Mrs. Morgan’s desk and she told me to sit down. I said I preferred to stand (advantage, Myra!). She said that no well-raised white girl would choose the friends I did and choose to do the things I did with them. She also said she was sure my parents were so very ashamed of me and embarrassed at my behavior. I responded that I would compare my breeding to hers any day of the week and that I was doing what my parents taught me and expected me to do and they were very, very proud of me. We looked at each for a few moments, then I asked was that all, she said it was and I left. Gave my friends the “thumbs up” sign when I got to the lobby and we all laughed. Mrs. Morgan did not have the authority to do anything about whom I chose as my friends or what I chose to do. My family did get a big kick out of this when I told them.
The other incident was in March, 1968 when the SGA (Student Government Association) had invited Robert Kennedy to speak at the University. I had Biology class the day before Mr. Kennedy was to speak and I had Biology lab the next afternoon when Mr. Kennedy was going to give his speech. Our Biology teacher, looking straight at me the entire time, told us that anyone who missed lab the following afternoon would have to bring him a doctor’s note from a town doctor or one at the school infirmary and he would, personally, check on that excuse. If you missed and did not have a doctor’s excuse you would fail his class. I looked at him with a noncommittal look on my face then went to my dorm room, called my Mother and told her I was going to fail Biology because Moses and I were going to hear Robert Kennedy so I would miss lab. She told me that was fine as I’d probably never need to know Biology anyway! So Moses and I went and heard Robert Kennedy; then when the speech was over Moses grabbed my hand and we made our way out the front (most audience members were surging toward the stage) and ran around the corner of the building toward the back just barely in time to see Mr. Kennedy going into the limousine and pull away. I will ever wonder what might have happened if we had been just a few seconds earlier and Robert Kennedy had seen us. A black boy and white girl holding hands. Would not have missed seeing Robert Kennedy for anything in the world, especially since he was assassinated just a few months later. We also experienced the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in April, 1968. It was sad and horrifying beyond words for my black friends, myself, and many others.
By the time we left Birmingham and returned to Nashville there were many black employees whom Papa had hired at the book store, from the Office Manager, Mary Jo Russell (she and Leah became really good friends and wrote and called each other for years after we left and returned to Nashville), to Stock Staff and Sales People. Papa did what he said he would do, hired many blacks to staff the store.
To my huge disappointment, my parents had me come home for my last two years in college and I graduated from Birmingham-Southern. I was a commuter and didn’t make many friends there nor can I recall ever seeing a black student or professor or employee of the college. I have lost touch with all my friends from Tuscaloosa except Cynthia. Cynthia is Dr. Cynthia Ann Jackson having gotten a Ph.D in Microbiology and having spent her career working as a professor and researcher. Her daughter, Lydia, calls me her “Godmother” although officially I am not. The three of us send each other cards and letters and keep up by email.
It was a strange, horrific and tragic time to be in Birmingham, Tuscaloosa and Alabama. We had George Wallace as Alabama Governor and his evil twin, Lester Maddox, as Georgia Governor. On TV we watched Eugene “Bull” Connor with the dogs and water hoses and the sit-ins. I have always regretted being too young to attend the March on Montgomery or to be a Freedom Rider but have many, many good memories of the friends I had and the good times we had together. I was given one of the best and most treasured gifts of my life by having the privilege and honor of being named an “honorary” member of the African-American Society at Tuscaloosa and that meant the world to me. We did what we could and just hoped that our small efforts made a difference in the Civil Rights cause.
Thank you so much for allowing me to share my story. We were very blessed to have the parents we had and for what they taught us. God bless all of us who lived through a terrible and dark chapter in American history and learned the lessons of harmony and respect for all people.
Myra Horn wrote this story expressly for Kids in Birmingham 1963, where it is published in August 2019.