I was still in diapers when it happened.
The bombing of that church in Birmingham, Alabama. September 15, 1963. You know–the 16th St. Baptist Church. The one on the corner of the square where the German Shepherds and the firehoses were turned on the peacefully assembled people.
The one where those four little girls died.
Watching the 50th Anniversary of the 1963 March on Washington this past week brought it all back. Not because of the speeches or the music, however inspiring. It was that bell that did it for me.
At noon, right after an impassioned speech by one of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s daughters, and right before the appearance of our nation’s first Black President, they rang the bell that had been salvaged from that bombed church all those years ago. And I started to cry.
I am a 51 year-old privileged white woman, but I am a child of the Civil Rights Movement.
In 1957, my parents moved from California to North Carolina to start my dad’s career and raise a family. They were horrified by what they found there. You don’t need me to describe it for you: the “Whites Only” signs, the “Colored” drinking fountains. You’ve seen it all before, in documentaries if not the actual news of the time. Maybe you’ve even lived it.
My parents didn’t want their three little girls going to segregated schools. So they, as part of the Durham Friends Meeting, started the Carolina Friends School, the first integrated school in the state. And they got involved in the sit-in movement.
Three years after the first, spontaneous sit-in at the lunch counter of the Greensboro Woolworths, and a year after the bombing of the church in Birmingham, my dad got arrested, along with a few others, trying to desegregate a Howard Johnson’s in Durham.
His case went to trial. The jury couldn’t reach a verdict, so a mistrial was declared. The state prosecutor compelled my dad not to leave the state until the new trial, but at the same time refused to set that new trial date. My dad was trapped. As a young professor of zoology, he could not travel anywhere for his field research, or to attend a professional conference. North Carolina had imposed a kind of in-state house arrest.
So he took the state to trial. And lost. He appealed to the State Supreme Court…and lost again. The Court agreed that my dad had, in theory, the right to a speedy trial, under the 6th Amendment, but that he couldn’t force the state to prosecute him because…wait for it…the 6th Amendment did not apply to the states, but only to the federal government.
So…on to the Supreme Court. I’ll skip to the happy ending. In 1967, the Supreme Court sided with my dad and said, yessiree, the states do too have to give people their 6th Amendment rights, just like they have to give you due process and equal protection and all those other wonderful rights from the 14th Amendment. (Can you tell that one’s my favorite?)
If you want to be a Super Legal Geek like me, you can read about the case here:
You can probably tell that I’m skipping over a lot of anguish and fear from the time, as well as deep guilt from my family’s knowledge that our whiteness was a protection that my dad’s Black colleagues did not have. Take all that mix of emotions, insert it into childhood, and voila: memories and images from that time period still make me cry.
Here’s another example, from Birmingham itself. My husband and I drove through a couple of years ago on a cross-country road trip, and stopped at that famous park to make a pilgrimage.
Let me tell you, I had to force myself to walk between those snarling dogs. And they were only bronze.
So that’s why that bell gets me. Because it was THERE. Like those brave folks, who continued facing down the Birmingham police and the Klan even after that murderous bombing, it survived. It RINGS.
Do you have memories of that time? Or images that get you right in the heart? Or does it all seem too long ago and far away? I am so very interested to know how the images of that time work on you. Let me hear!