The ministers told us, ‘We want the signs to come down.’ And right away, we got it.
Carolyn McKinstry (paraphrase)
Some people think we don’t have the right
To say it’s my country
Before they give in, they’d rather fuss and fight
Than say it’s my country
The Impressions, “This is My Country”
“You just wait until after Sunday morning. And they will beg us to let them segregate.”
“Dynamite Bob” Robert Chambliss (in But for Birmingham)
“I called out, ‘Addie.’ But I didn’t hear her answer me.”
“Who is really guilty? Each of us. Each citizen who has not consciously attempted to bring about peaceful compliance with the decisions of the Supreme Court; each citizen who has ever said, ‘They ought to kill that nigger.’ Every person in this community who has in any way contributed to the popularity of hatred is at least as guilty, or more so, as the demented fool who threw that bomb. What’s it like living in Birmingham? No one ever really has and no one will until this city becomes part of the United States.”
Charles Morgan (in My Soul is Rested)
It’s been an emotionally wrenching day as we wrestled with the September 1963 bombing of 16th Street Baptist Church, a desperate Klan response to their losing battle to preserve segregation. We started the day listening to and talking with Carolyn McKinstry. Ms. McKinstry was 14 years old at the time, and she had just visited with Addie Mae Collins, Denise McNair, Carole Robertson, Cynthia Wesley, and Sarah Collins – activists not a one – while doing her Sunday School volunteer duties when the bomb went off.
Listening to McKinstry is an incredibly powerful experience: the way she tells her traumatic story is so courageously imbued with the drive for reconciliation that it brings to mind Desmond Tutu and Mahatma Gandhi. I’m so thankful that after years of silence she has found a way to tell the story. I can’t possibly do it justice – it looks like there are many video and audio files posted online and I encourage you to explore them. It’s because I have children, I think, that I’m so moved by the story of so many children jolted into a world of chaos and pain by such depravity; it made me thankful to be a parent.
On the other end of the day was former US Attorney Doug Jones’ presentation on the prosecution of the church bombers. Jones led the prosecutions of Thomas Blanton Jr in 2001 and Bobby Frank Cherry in 2002; in 1977, he was a law student skipping classes to attend the prosecution of Robert “Dynamite Bob” Chambliss. Jones took us through the steps that led to successful prosecutions and made the argument that the justice served demonstrated how far Birmingham had come in the nearly 4 decades since the horrific act. Towards the end, he told us that he never dreamed that he would be part of a project that would hold such meaning to so many people. That’s been a recurrent theme in many of the sessions and a clear reminder that keeping your heart and mind open to transformation can lead to unanticipated consequence.
Between these two magnificent bookends, we were treated to more time with Glenn Eskew and Martha Bouyer. Glenn answered questions that had arisen over the past days. He talked about how Martin Luther King’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail, written most immediately as a response to letters signed by white clergymen in January and April 1963 encouraging an end to the protests, was a calculated appeal to moderate ministers to get beyond stances of denial, delay, and never. They didn’t get it when it was published – but they did after the 16th Street bombing. Glenn also talked about the incredible toll the period had on participants, evidenced by the stress many activists suffered throughout their lives (which was something Carolyn McKinstry talked about as well, both in telling the story of others and her own.) Finally, I had no idea that George Wallace’s famous proclamation on segregation was a direct parallel to the Klan’s slogan “today, tomorrow, and forever.”
Martha had us looking at an incredible resource binder full of primary docs and had us work with songs and poems as historical artifacts. The diversity of our week here – engaging in oral history with those who lived the story, with scholarship through our sessions with Dr. Glenn Eskew, visiting historical sites and museums, and considering classroom applications was developed by Ms. Bouyer over years of building the “Stony the Road We Trod…” program: if you’re a teacher who hasn’t yet participated in one of her sessions, I encourage you to sign up for one soon.
Want to read about the rest of the trip?