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September 17, 2013

'Birmingham Sunday' was civil

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The Daily Star

---- — On Birmingham Sunday a noise shook the ground.

And people all over the earth turned around.

For no one recalled a more cowardly sound.

And the choir kept singing of Freedom.

— From “Birmingham Sunday” by Joan Baez

The year 1963 was tumultuous, to say the least. It is remembered primarily, however, for the exclamation point added to it on Nov. 22, when President John F. Kennedy was assassinated.

For the civil rights movement, it was a year of struggle, of defeats, of violence and of attention-grabbing television footage. And it was the year that much of the nation tuned in to see the March on Washington and hear the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream’’ speech.

Throughout the South, there had been scattered progress during recent years in overcoming the segregation of blacks and whites, which I had witnessed personally during trips through southern states as a child. 

I remember stopping at drive-in eateries in the Carolinas and Georgia and seeing separate windows and tables out back for blacks to place their orders and eat. I went to a movie theater in Florida and was surprised to learn that blacks got the best seats — in the balcony.

By 1963, however, from lunch counters to schools, integration was occurring, albeit at a snail’s pace. In Alabama, though, even that pace was too rapid for white leaders and many citizens. On Jan. 14, Gov. George Wallace vowed “segregation now, segregation forever’’ in his first inaugural speech.

Many observers considered Birmingham, Ala., to be the most segregated and racist city in America, and much of the civil rights struggles were centered there in 1963. Black leaders had begun pushing for integration, and white supremacists vowed to not let their city become like Montgomery to the south, where desegregation had made some inroads.

Months of demonstrations, boycotts and violence culminated 50 years ago Sunday, on Sept. 15, when KKK members planted a bomb at the 16th Street Baptist Church, killing four girls aged 11 to 14. Today, the bombing that killed Denise McNair, Addie Mae Collins, Carole Robertson and Cynthia Wesley would be called an act of domestic terrorism.

The bombing of a church and the deaths of children stunned the nation, and was the beginning of progress toward the end of the overt racism that dominated Birmingham. It is unfortunate that it took such a deadly tragedy to create that stepping stone.

It was in Birmingham, however, that media coverage of the events of the previous months had horrified many Americans and got the attention of President Kennedy, who in June finally acknowledged that segregation was “morally wrong’’ and that it was “time to act’’ to end it.

I was just 13 in May 1963 when I was shocked by television coverage of Birmingham police and firemen turning German shepherds and fire hoses against anti-segregation demonstrators. The president saw the same coverage and was already aware that MLK had been arrested and jailed in Birmingham in April during a desegregation drive.

So, in June, when Gov. Wallace blocked entrance to the state university to black students, Kennedy called in National Guard troops. Wallace backed down.

Five days before the deadly church bombing, three previously all-white schools in Birmingham were integrated when Kennedy federalized the Alabama National Guard and the Federal courts issued an order against Wallace’s opposition. 

Last week in Washington, 50 years later, House and Senate leaders formally awarded Congress’ highest civilian honor, the Congressional Gold Medal, to the families of the four girls killed in the church bombing, which many now regard as one of the most horrific acts of violence of the civil rights era. 

At the ceremony, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid honored the legacy of the four girls, who at the time of the explosion were preparing to take part in the Sunday worship. 

“There was no safety for those four little girls. Not even Sunday school,’’ Reid said. “But there really was salvation. Not only for the four young ladies, but for a nation.’’ 

He added that the “outrage sparked by the deaths of these four innocents ignited the civil rights movement like nothing had up to that time.’’ 

We older folks may not remember what we were doing when hearing about that church bombing, as we do for the Kennedy assassination, but we do recall the horror we felt as that summer of 1963 was coming to a close. 

Cary Brunswick, of Oneonta, is a freelance writer and editor. He can be reached at brunswick@earthling.net. The views expressed in this column do not necessarily reflect those of The Daily Star and its editorial board.