On this date, September 15th, in 1963 the world was rocked by the news that a bomb had torn through the stone façade of the 16th Street Baptist Church in my hometown of Birmingham, Alabama. The blast took the lives of four precious little girls who were getting ready for their participation in the “Youth Service” on that fateful Sunday morning. Many others were injured in the blast and the conscious of a city and a nation was finally shaken to the point of action.
Bombs were not uncommon to Birmingham during that period. More than fifty blasts had wrecked buildings and lives in the city during the preceding thirty-six months. The blasts were so common the national news often referred to my city as BOMBINGHAM, a dreadful but accurate description. A neighborhood along Center Street is still known to locals, unofficially, as “Dynamite Hill” because so many bombs were planted in the homes of African American activist during that same period.
I was an innocent six-year-old white kid living on the western edge of the city on that fateful Sunday in 1963. Growing up in Birmingham, I can say that I have witnessed the ugliness along with the good and bad this city offered. My Grasselli Heights neighborhood was already reeling from ‘white flight’ although I was too young to know what that even meant. Over the next few years, our white neighbors quickly decreased as more African Americans moved in. As a child, I honestly didn’t even notice. The corner store that I walked to almost daily was the Hillman Grocery and it was owned and operated by a young black couple that had kids my age. They lived in the back of the store. The Hillman neighborhood just a couple of hundred yards from my house had always been African American, so I failed to notice the shrinking white neighborhood on the other side. If only I could have maintained that innocence.
Following the tragedies of September 15, 1963, reforms were inevitable, but change came so slow. I was a seventh grader before my school was integrated. Although the marches and clashes with police dogs and fire hoses were just a horrible memory by the seventies, the ugliness of racial tension was still present and what I experienced as an innocent child and then a teenager emerging into adulthood, clearly shaped who I am and how I viewed my experiences.
As I look back, fifty-seven years later, I am astounded by how my recollection and views of our society differ so much from many of the people I went through school with. Their view of our world today seems to be much different than mine. With the civil unrest we have experienced in the last few months, I am astounded at the reactions I have seen on social media from people who seemingly should have the same recollections that I do, but sadly somehow theirs is much different. Instead of empathy and compassion for our African American friends and the Black Lives Matter movement, they seem to be filled with fear and rage. It breaks my heart and I don’t know how to fix it.
During the sixties, the Sam Cooke tune, A Change is Gonna Come, became a rallying song for civil rights foot soldiers. Following the 50th Anniversary of the song’s release, a friend of mine heard it on the radio and marveled that fifty years had passed. She was working on a new album at the time and was on her way to the studio when she heard the song on the radio. When she got to the studio, she had already begun writing a new song. She teamed with her producer to finish the song and by the end of that day A Change Should Have Come By Now was added to the new album. The title and the lyrics are even more true today. Kate Campbell is the singer/songwriter behind the song, and it is on her album, Damn Sure Blue. Kate is a little younger than me but also grew up in the South during those troubling times. Her gift as a songwriter and storyteller have been inspirational to me. Another one of her songs, Bear It Away, tells the haunting story of those four little girls killed on that fateful Sunday. I used both of those songs in my upcoming novel. Woven into the contemplations of one of the characters as the tragedies of long ago threaten our city again.
My prayer today is that CHANGE WILL COME… Once again, our conscious has been awakened by the tragedies across our nation spawned by hate, intolerance and indifference. Change should have come by now, but it seems we continue to talk about it, recognize it and then move along without any real and lasting change. Overcoming the institutional racism and hate that has plagued our country since long before its inception will not be easy, but I pray that true change will come now. For that to happen, we all have to continue to speak out. We have to vote for leaders who recognize it and are willing to make the changes needed. Our African American friends know this and have known it all too well… it is now time that white Americans join in that crusade. We must be willing to listen and learn and then walk hand in hand with our brothers and sisters of color to erase centuries of pain. I pray that we can do this, and I pray that we can do it without delay.
PHOTO CREDIT: Pitt Chronicle chronicle.pitt.edu