On this Memorial Day weekend, rather than head off to Hilton Head Island as was the plan, Betty and I travelled due west from my home in Atlanta to the city of Birmingham, Alabama. I was privileged to be invited last week to a late afternoon lecture by Doug Jones, former United States Attorney for the Northern District of Alabama. During Mr. Jones’ tenure, he led the prosecution team which successfully prosecuted the near 40 year-old cold case against two former KKK members who planted the bomb which killed four young girls attending services at the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham. While the story of these murders is fairly well know even today (and painfully memorialized in Spike Lee’s film, 4 Little Girls), I was mesmerized by Mr. Jones for every minute of his ninety minute talk. Absolutely mesmerized. And thus our change of plans for at least part of the weekend.
Arriving at the church just three days after I had heard the story up close and personal was remarkable. Every bit as powerful an experience as I thought it might be. I had called in advance to make arrangements for a spot on the noon tour and we arrived just a few minutes late. Turns out not really late, as we forgot the time change as one crosses the Georgia/Alabama border. With almost an hour to pass before the tour began, we strolled through Kelly Ingram Park, the scene of so much of the civil rights battles — the water cannons, the vicious dogs — that took place in Birmingham.
The church bombing that occurred on September 15, 1963 was not an isolated event. There had been so many bombings that Birmingham had earned the ugly but appropriate nickname “Bombingham”. And during the months that led up to the murders, the heat had been turned up in the city. Led by the clergy and the SCLC, organized and peaceful protests including economic boycotts of white businesses that had refused to allow any semblance of integration had been met with vicious responses by both the KKK and the police. The center of much of the organized protests was the 16th Street Baptist Church. The fact that there was another bombing in Birmingham couldn’t have surprised anyone. The fact that a church was the location, even the 16th Street Church, could not have been shocking either. But the fact the four young girls were murdered in that bombing shocked the world.
One of the pictures we saw during our visit was of a group of angry white men, women, and children furiously protesting the integration of Birmingham schools. Unless you have seen these photos, you can’t imagine the hatred on these people’s faces. One woman was holding a sign that read: Keep Alabama White. There were uglier words on other signs, but for some reason, that one really struck me. At the time of the Civil War, almost half the population of Alabama was Black. In 1963, a full thirty percent of the state’s population was the same color. Keep Alabama White. Really?