Sunday September 15, 1963…I doubt I paid much attention to the happenings in Birmingham, Alabama in 1963. I paid more attention on Monday when Walter brought the CBS Nightly News as the family gathered around the black and white TV, chewing soggy TV dinner fried chicken and cardboard mac and cheese.
I pay more attention now. The past can be painful. Ignoring the past can be more so. Four young girls, Addie Mae Collins (age 14, born April 18, 1949); Carol Denise McNair (age 11, born November 17, 1951); Carole Rosanond Robertson (age 14, born April 24, 1949); and Cynthia Dionne Wesley (age 14, born April 30, 1949), were killed in the attack as they attended Sunday school…Sunday school. Addie Mae’s sister, 12-year-old Sarah, had twenty-one shards of glass embedded in her face. She was blinded in one eye. Some twenty others were injured and there was another death. Some twenty or more casualties to the war that was Civil Rights.
I do not know what I thought. I do not know what my family thought. We were not the types to sit around the dinner table discussing Civil Rights, race relations, and the deaths of four young girls in the city that became known as “Bombingham.” I honestly don’t know where my parents stood on racism and Civil Rights. Considering all possibilities, that is not a bad thing.
I don’t know for sure what my classmates thought during school that Monday morning. There was no discussion of the travesty that had occurred in my eighth-grade civics class…my all-white class in my little all-white school.
I was thirteen. About the ages of the girls killed at the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church. I wonder what I thought. I am sure I was more concerned about the pennant race in the National League than four deaths in Alabama. The Dodgers were battling it out with the Cardinals and held a one game lead. On September sixteenth they would begin a series with the Dodgers one game up. In the American League, the Yankees had run away and hid in 1963. I knew baseball standings, but I didn’t know the names of the girls now gone.
It is not that I was unfeeling, I was thirteen, an immature thirteen. I was more concerned about baseball and the Playboy magazine I had snuck into my bedroom. There was that little blond-haired girl that stirred feelings and reactions I simply did not understand. Alabama was a place far, far away and the lives lost unknown to me.
Occasionally thoughts would enter my teenage mind. “How is this right?” I was not ready to go marching with Martin Luther King but images of burning buses, fire hoses, and now rubble were having an effect…a lasting effect.
My grandmother had taught the Golden Rule. I couldn’t understand why we weren’t treating these people the way we wished to be treated. Why were people so angry and why did they all look like me? Why didn’t I have the guts to act?
I couldn’t understand the lack of empathy from friends either…as I can’t understand now.
The last of the three bombers died in prison this past June. (A fourth died before he could be brought to justice). I will not say their names. He was eighty-two. He was not brought to justice until 2001…none were brought to justice in 1963, not because their identities were unknown, because of the system that was in place…a system that is still hanging on in many places. The three freely lived their lives as if nothing had happened, one for thirty-seven years. He lived freely three times as long as the little girls whose lives he helped to take.
I’m thankful I’m not the same person I was in 1963. I was a child of the time and carried my racism with me well into my adulthood. My change occurred over time, there was no sudden flipped switch. It was the realization that what I saw and heard was at odds with what I had learned despite my grandmother’s best teachings.
I still have my moments. I still carry my racism. Thoughts I wish I didn’t have, thoughts I pray forgiveness for. I pray for understanding, pray for peace among all God’s children. Prayers that don’t include forgetting but do include forgiveness. Prayers for taking the first step toward healing which is the recognition and acceptance of our sins.
Don Miller writes on various subjects that bother him so. His author’s page may be found at https://www.amazon.com/Don-Miller/e/B018IT38GM?fbclid=IwAR0C336Kj_qD1fHk40ybRg8b7CHHd6f8KYcGIC44-qIqsbZJGjv0WdXaeKI