September 15, 1963: The Day our Driver Changed Course
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. The article reported the Freedom Riders’ bus arrived at the station shortly after we had left. On the radio, Bull Connor told reporters he gave police officers the day off so they could visit their mothers on Mother’s Day.
In early May 1963, we picked up Stevie at the bus station with no problems. When Mama turned south toward home on a one-way street, police cars and firetrucks packed the avenue to our right. I looked through a gap in the blockade and hollered, “Mama, they’re shooting people down with firehoses.” Mama sped through downtown running yellow lights. She floored it up Pawnee Avenue, gunning the engine through the line of castles guarding the crest of Red Mountain. On the other side, she took a breather, allowing the car to coast down past the police station in Crestline Village, where she picked up a normal pace up Old Leeds Road, around the bend, and to the top of our winding driveway on Pine Ridge.
That evening, CBS news shocked the nation with footage of Bull Connor strutting around commanding his fire department and police officers with attack dogs. Most shocking to me was that some of the people I saw earlier being shot down by firehoses were my age. Teenagers mostly, they marched into the line of fire and even sang as police officers herded them into paddy wagons.
September 15, 1963 began like an ordinary Sunday. Our family attended early worship service at Independent Presbyterian Church, and we split up to attend separate Sunday school classes. My father, who served on the board of elders, drove separately to attend to church business. Mama, who was thirty-seven, was driving us home in the station wagon. I recall my brother, age fifteen, as sitting in the front seat. I was fourteen, sitting in the middle seat next to my younger sisters. It was after 11 o’clock when the late service should have already begun. Like a scene from the Twilight Zone, church bells kept ringing. Not just at our church. All the churches down Highland Avenue and from the valley below kept ringing their bells. Mama suspected something was up and turned on the radio. With bells echoing off Red Mountain, she had to turn up the volume to hear the newscaster report that forty-five minutes earlier a bomb exploded at the 16th Street Baptist Church.
When Mama turned and gazed at us in the back seat, I saw a transformed person. It was as if some primordial spirit, perhaps a distant ancestor, had called her into service. Doubts about purpose were gone. Her face, her entire countenance carried conviction. From that moment forward, my mother was on a mission, and nothing, nobody could stop her.
Mama continued to wash our laundry, prepare meals and chauffer us. She rarely mentioned the new friends and activities that enlivened her spirits while we were at school. Our station wagon saw more action than we did. It continued multiple trips over the mountain to our church and back, but it added a new loop in its route that included Southtown, a public housing community for African-Americans, located a mile toward downtown from Independent Presbyterian Church. The days and weeks after the church bombing, Mama, Robbie Sevier (one of my favorite Sunday school teachers), and other white volunteers from Independent teamed up with parents from Southtown to start the Mustard Seed Program, which began as a day-care/kindergarten for neighborhood children.
The Catholic Bishop offered the Mustard Seed Kindergarten its first space in St. Joseph the Worker, a storefront mission across from Southtown. Our neighbor, who owned a mining and foundry materials supply company, donated the first tables, which were empty wooden spools to store wire cable. In the months and years to come, the Mustard Seed Program added an after-school tutoring service, sports teams and all sorts of community enrichment activities led by Southtown volunteers. White resource partners assisted program leaders in their requests for activity space, equipment, and supplies from area businesses, churches, and government agencies.
Following the 1964 Civil Rights Act, Mustard Seed activities surged. Our station wagon transported Southtown residents eager to exercise newly won rights. With fieldtrips planned and coordinated by Southtown leaders like Mrs. Dixie Daniel, Mama and other white women from our church used their cars to take Southtown children to the Birmingham Public Library, where the children signed up for library cards and checked out books. They drove residents to previously Whites Only restaurants to enjoy meals together. They chauffeured Southtown leaders to the Mayor’s office, the Public Housing Authority, and Parks and Recreation to petition for activity space and resources for community programs.
During the summer of 1964, city authorities reopened most public parks but kept the pools closed down. Mama’s best friend from college had a private lake outside of Birmingham near Leeds. During a severe heatwave, they drove children from Southtown on a field trip to cool off in the lake. This was a dream come true for the two friends, who since the days of the Montgomery Bus Boycott had talked about using their cars for the service of racial justice. At a dinner at our home in 1956 when I was age seven, Shirley and Mama strategized that if the boycott spread to Birmingham, the two of them could organize a carpool to transport boycotting housekeepers like some of Shirley’s childhood friends from Montgomery were doing. While serving the grownups at the other end of the table, I overheard Poppaw and Shirley’s husband grumbling that if they lived in Montgomery they wouldn’t be letting their wives use their cars that way.
The lake near Leeds had a nice sand beach to spread towels on, but the sand did not extend far, so if you waded out, mud squished between your toes and you would have to dive toward deep water or sink in slime. When Poppaw returned home from work, he hardly greeted me. He was preoccupied, possibly from a tipoff. Poppaw headed straight to the passenger side of the station wagon and opened the front door only to find mud smeared on the upholstery and children’s footprints on the glove compartment. Poppaw slammed the door and marched through the house to the kitchen, where Mama was preparing dinner.
Uncharacteristically, my father barked, “Marna, I don’t care how you spend your time,” and then exploded, “but I won’t have my car being trashed by pickaninnies.”
My mother kept stirring the contents of the frying pan. Devoid of emotion, she responded, “Well, Charlie,” she reasoned, “I guess I’ll just have to go buy my own car.”
That is the only time, before or after, I heard my father raise his voice to my mother or utter a racial slur. On election days, they continued to vote opposite tickets and sometimes joked at dinner about cancelling each other’s vote. A Bull Connor for Governor paperweight remained on Poppaw’s law office desk in Ensley, and Mama kept driving the station wagon to Southtown. Neither mentioned their workdays at dinner. Every morning at breakfast, they continued to offer respectfully opposing interpretations of scripture passages we read aloud for that day. My father’s view of God’s natural order remained fundamentally different from hers, but I think deep down he respected my mother’s courage to act on her convictions. Something must have been going right for them. Less than twelve months after the blow up over the station wagon, my mother gave birth to their fifth child. A few months after that, President Johnson signed into law the 1965 Voting Rights Act, and the station wagon wore out a set of tires shuttling eager citizens from Southtown to the courthouse to register.
Robert Williams wrote this story for Kids in Birmingham 1963, in December 2023, 60 years after the events took place. He shares an extensive (unedited) video oral history that he and his sister Marna Williams conducted with their mother, also named Marna Williams, in January 2023, when their mother was 96 years old. In the interview, their mother speaks of what motivated her to become actively engaged with residents of Birmingham’s Southtown community in what became known as The Mustard Seed Project.
Their mother provided Kids in Birmingham 1963 with the following accompanying materials that give further context about The Mustard Seed at Southtown, a partnership for reparative justice in Birmingham, Alabama, during its formative years 1963-1974:
- VIDEO. View the 1967 Mustard Seed documentary, including background and credits, at this link.
- ESSAY. In 2013, upon attending the 50th anniversary of the bombing of 16th Street Baptist Church, Marna B. Williams wrote a reflection of her experience in the pulpit of that church in 1967, when she was invited by Black churches to represent the Mustard Seed Project and preach on “unity” in celebration of Brotherhood Week. Read her essay at this link.
- VIDEO recording of the oral history interview, “Reflections on a Decade of Reparative Collaboration in Southtown after the Bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church,” conducted with “Mama” Marna B. Williams (age 96) by her son “Robert” Robert G. Williams (age 74) and her daughter “Little Marna” Marna B. Williams. (January 25, 2023, unedited interview, 1hour 17 minutes). View the recording at this link.
- Read an overview of the oral history interview, here.
- ARTICLE from HUD Challenge magazine. The November 1974 issue of HUD Challenge, the magazine of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, described Birmingham’s Mustard Seed as a “tenant-operated program” and noted that, “The Presbyterian Church provides financing for the salary of the present Southtown program coordinator, and volunteers from the neighborhood work side by side with the residents in the center operation.” See highlighted feature on page 14 at this link.