The memories of a black child in Birmingham

Birmingham, Ala., firefighters turn their hoses full force on civil rights demonstrators. The scene in 1963 became a permanent image of the fight for civil rights.
Birmingham, Ala., firefighters turn their hoses full force on civil rights demonstrators. The scene in 1963 became a permanent image of the fight for civil rights. (BILL HUDSON / Associated Press)

I was insulated from much of what happened, but witnessed flashes of racial hatred - and the response.

Posted: February 25, 2013

Has it really been 50 years?

It's not that my memories of 1963 are so vivid that it seems like yesterday. It doesn't. But neither does it seem that it was half a century ago when the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. came to my hometown of Birmingham, Ala. Man, I'm old.

In 1963 I was 9 years old, in the third grade, and not paying much attention to the conversations of all the adults who were apprehensive because the Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth had asked King to help lead the local civil rights movement.

Shuttlesworth, whom I interviewed years later as a reporter, was head of the Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights, an organization formed out of necessity after the state banned the NAACP.

The best account of King's days in Birmingham can be found in the first installment of Taylor Branch's civil-rights history trilogy, Parting the Waters, which helps fill in the blanks in my memory that resulted from my inattention as a child.

Not that I'm using my youth as an excuse. There were children who were quite aware of what was happening. In fact, one of the youngest arrested for demonstrating was a classmate, Audrey Hendricks, whose parents were active in the movement. Audrey's story can be found in Ellen Levine's book, Freedom's Children.

Shuttlesworth asked for King's help because the Birmingham movement was losing its energy. King agreed to come because his national movement needed a spark after demonstrations in Albany, Ga., failed to integrate anything. In a telegram to President John F. Kennedy, King called Birmingham "by far the worst big city in race relations in the United States."

I'm sure he was right. But a 9-year-old black boy living in a segregated world doesn't experience much discrimination. My only memory of how segregation affected me at that age is of when my mother couldn't find a colored bathroom for her child when we were downtown shopping. My humiliating recollection is that we found an empty alley in time.

Condoleezza Rice, whose father was the pastor of my church, tells a similar story about growing up in Birmingham during the civil rights era in her book Extraordinary, Ordinary People. She recalls how her mother insisted that her child be allowed to try on a dress in a department store fitting room and how an exasperated white clerk made sure no one noticed that she had given in to the demand.

Rice said her father and Shuttlesworth were friends, but disagreed on tactics. Like many blacks, especially among the middle class, the Rev. John Wesley Rice Jr. believed integration would come eventually without the marches and demonstrations that might become violent. They believed education was the key to prove blacks were intellectually equal and deserved to be treated as such.

My parents believed that, too, though we were hardly middle class. My father was a truck driver for a furniture store. My mother was a stay-at-home mom. With my four brothers, we had lived in a housing project since I was born. My parents made sure we put school first, to succeed in any world - black or white. Bad grades were unacceptable. Bad conduct meant punishment at school and at home.

Our parents' focus on education was uppermost in our minds when my older brother Don and I were confronted on the way to school by two older youths who said black students were boycotting school that day to show support for King's demonstrations. I don't recall all that was said, but we went to school. Most children did, but others, like Audrey, marched.

King's top aide, Wyatt Tee Walker, had devised a four-stage strategy for their Birmingham campaign. It began with small-scale sit-ins and escalated to store boycotts and mass marches designed to fill the jails and garner national news coverage. After several weeks, King made the decision to add children to the mix.

Hundreds of teenagers and younger children filed out of Sixteenth Street Baptist Church where they were greeted by Police Commissioner Eugene "Bull" Connor and his storm troopers, who treated adult and child alike. The marchers were beaten and knocked from their feet by powerful water cannons operated by city firefighters and then taken to jail.

The resulting bad publicity after the world press reported the story in articles, photographs, and film was too much for a city that once had hopes of competing with Atlanta to become the commerce center of the South. City officials signed what Connor called the "lyingest, face-saving" document he had ever seen - an agreement to remove "Whites Only" signs, integrate lunch counters, and hire black clerks at department stores.

Those modest gains were too much for segregationists who, like some people today when it comes to gun control, saw any concession as the first step down the slippery slope to total surrender. The agreement was signed May 10, 1963. That night, bombs were set off at the home of King's brother, A.D. King, and at the black-owned Gaston Motel, where King had stayed during the Birmingham campaign.

For the most part, I was oblivious to the summer of violence that ensued. But one thing I will never forget about those days is one of my rare interactions with white people. I was just about to cross a well-traveled street on my way to the store when a pickup truck whizzed by with two or three white kids in the back who yelled something about "nigger" at me.

Their venom surprised me because it was so unexpected. I remember wondering how they could hate me when they didn't even know me. Did whoever was driving the truck really intend to hit me? But just how far hatred can take a person toward depravity became more apparent within a matter of days when Sixteenth Street Baptist Church was bombed on Sept. 15, 1963, killing four little girls.

One of the children, Denise McNair, 11, went to my elementary school. Her mother taught there, and her father was a milkman for the dairy that delivered to our house. Also killed in the bombing were Cynthia Wesley, Addie Mae Collins, and Carole Robertson, all 14. But two other black youths were also killed that day. Johnny Robinson, 16, was shot in the back by police, and Virgil Ware, 13, was shot by two white kids as he rode his bicycle.

That night, my father and other black men in neighborhoods across Birmingham got out their guns and stood guard under porch lights. They fully expected to be engaged in a race war. Now 10, I was more curious than afraid. I had heard the church blast from my home. I still couldn't understand a level of hatred that led strangers to kill strangers because they looked different.

Fifty years later, the hatred has subsided, but it's not gone. Many of the visceral reactions to President Obama's election had nothing to do with his politics. Still, these are better times. Segregation is dead. Racists can't get away with what used to be sanctioned by law. Racism birthed the educational and health disparities that continue among blacks, but the right economic policies, even if applied in a color-blind fashion, could be their cure.

In the weeks ahead, there will be many commemorations of 1963 - in Birmingham, in particular, which for decades tried to forget those bad, old days before realizing the best way to overcome that history is by confronting it. Today, the city's Civil Rights Institute is both a tribute to the past and the physical embodiment of a town's collective sigh of relief that that was then and this is now.

We all must remember the past, so as not to repeat it.


E-mail Inquirer editorial page editor Harold Jackson at hjackson@phillynews.com.

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