Sunday, September 15, 2013

September 15, 1963

50 Years Ago

My parents were living in Birmingham, Alabama, my mother's hometown,  during the fall of 1963.  My mother, Trina Nall, was expecting her first child (I would be born the following March.) She was working at the time as a secretary for the city of Homewood, one of the outlying suburbs.  I remember her telling me as a child of the awful events of that day.

Those conversations I had with my mom came back to my mind recently as I was reading the excellent book entitled "While The World Watched" by Carolyn McKinstry.   In her book, Mrs. McKinstry describes her life growing up as a black child in Birmingham, Alabama during the 1960's, culminating in the terrible bombing of her church, 16th Street Baptist, which took place that Sunday in September, 1963.  She narrowly missed death in the bombing, but four of her young friends, Addie Mae Collins (age 14), Denise McNair (age 11), Carole Robertson (age 14), and Cynthia Wesley (age 14), were killed in the attack. The explosion blew a hole in the church's rear wall, destroyed the back steps and all but one stained-glass window, which showed Christ leading a group of little children.

As I was reading this book, Ms. McKinstry told of going by Kiddieland, a local amusement park, as a child.  I was shocked to read that in the early 1960's, black children were not allowed in Kiddieland.  I remember that park, where my parents would take me as a small child just a few years later.  Integration had taken place by then, so I of course had no idea of it's ugly history.  I recently learned that the one time that black children were allowed in the adjacent fairgrounds was when Birmingham's notorious police commissioner, Bull Conner, used the property as a place to imprison civil rights demonstrators when the prisons became full. Many of these demonstrators were teens and even children.  They were kept penned up in the open air with no shelter and no facilities for days at a time.

As a response to this moving book, I recently wrote to Mrs. McKinstry and shared with her my story.  I'd like to share part of my letter here:

Dear Ms. McKinstry,

I just finished reading your excellent book, "While The World Watched" and wanted to tell you how much I enjoyed it.  While I live in Indiana now, I grew up in Alabama.  In fact, I was born in Birmingham March 12, 1964, just a few short months from the terrible bombing that took place at your church.  As a matter of fact, I recall my mother describing to me her horror at hearing of the bombing... I remember her telling me about talking to people who had witnessed the bombing.  My mother, who passed away ten years ago, was a white Birmingham wife and mother who abhorred racism and taught her children the dangers of judging others because of their skin color.   I suspect that the events that you describe on September 15, 1963, were such a shock to her that it gave birth to a determination in her to teach her children differently.  I never heard her use the "N-word" and she never allowed my sister and I to use it.  In fact, she told us how much she hated it and how demeaning it was to people
...I went into the 1st grade in Birmingham in the fall of 1970.  Of course, I was too small to know it, but my mother told me later that it was the first year that Woodrow Wilson Elementary was integrated.  She had a choice of which class to put me in.  She was probably the only white woman that requested that her child be put in the classroom of a black teacher.  I still remember that teacher, Mrs. Stone, who would become one of my favorite elementary teachers.  She loved her students and we loved her.  Because of my mother's determination to put me in this black teacher's class, I had a very positive outlook growing up towards people of other races.  As a matter of fact, one of my best friends in high school was black...

This last July marked ten years since my mother passed away.  She taught me many things, but one of the most important is to treat all people with dignity and respect.  That may seem unremarkable now, but it was a remarkable thing to teach a young white child in the 60's and 70's in the lower South. 

I received a gracious reply to my email from Carolyn McKinstry, which I share below:

I am so grateful that you read the book and that it was a blessings to you. I just wanted to tell the story from the eyes of a 14 year old in a very simple way. It has helped me tremendously to continue moving on.
Traveling has also helped me to know that God made so many wonderful people throughout the world. I have met at least half of them!! (smile). And I have never encountered anyone who did not fell exactly as you have described. I am grateful to God for them and for you. This is what pushes me to continue the journey....I thank God for all He has done, and for all you are doing. We cannot change yesterday, but we can control today. And we should for tomorrow is not promised. You are an inspiration to me!!

This wonderful lady as well as all of those who fought the battle for civil rights are an inspiration to me as well!

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