I turned 10 in 1963. I had no idea about what was going on in Birmingham at that time until the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church. That Sunday it became real to me. I was in my Sunday School class at First Methodist downtown in a borrowed room at Alabama Power due to construction and renovation of our regular meeting place. There was an explosive sound and then adults running in to save us and escort us back to the main church building. I was scared. At that time the biggest thing we were worried about as children was an attack from Russia. This cowardly act came from our own citizens in our own city! It did not seem real at the time and still doesn’t. Over the last 50 years I have hopefully become more aware and compassionate toward others different from me but still all the same. I feel privileged to have lived through this and to maybe make a small difference in the world around me.
My recollection of 1963 centers around gaining a new friend at a swimming outing in August 1963, and losing her in the church bombing a month later. Sixteenth Street Baptist Church had an all-day youth pool outing at Memorial Recreation Center. I was invited by my paternal aunts, one the long-time organist for the church (Mary Alice Stollenwerck) and the other a long-time member (Myrtle Lumpkin) and teacher. That day I met Addie Mae Collins and we “clicked,” spending all day chatting in the corner of the swimming pool while most of the other kids swam and ran about. I was excited about the closeness we rapidly formed during the day. A month later I was horrified to learn that she was one of the victims of the bombing that killed her and three other girls that I knew by name and family affiliation at church only. (more…)
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. (more…)
Growing up in a family where most were members of 16th Street Baptist Church I spent a considerable amount of time in attendance even though my mother was Catholic. On the Sunday morning of the 16th Street Baptist Church was bombing, I vividly recall my Aunt Mary Alice Clarke Stollenwerck, the Church organist, and other relatives coming to my grandmother’s house all covered in ashes.
On a Sunday two years later, my mother, Dr. Juanita Clarke, drove my siblings and I to church at Our Lady Queen of the Universe on Center Street at the foot of dynamite hill. (more…)
Even as the inspiring words of Martin Luther King Jr.’s famous “I Have a Dream” speech rang out from the Lincoln Memorial during the historic March on Washington in August of 1963 were still reverberating around the world, less than a month later, on September 15, an even louder sound rumbled through my life. The rumbling has never stopped for me.
A bomb exploded before Sunday morning services at the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama – a church with a predominantly black congregation that served as a meeting place for civil rights leaders. Four young girls were killed, and many other people injured that day. (more…)