Bending Toward Justice: Birmingham Then and Now

Sixteenth Street Bapt Chch B'ham Museum Family

  • First photo: Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham. Exactly 50 years ago, on September 15, 1963, four children were killed here when the church was bombed by the Ku Klux Klan.
  • Second photo:  A family watches a video, recently, at the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute, across the street from the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church.

Bending Toward Justice: Birmingham Then and Now

A reflection by Joan Tornow

Birmingham, Alabama. The city in the deep South that in 1963 Martin Luther King, Jr., referred to as “probably the most thoroughly segregated city in the United States.” At two separate times in my life, I lived in Birmingham — first when I was in high school. And later, in 1967, when I returned for three months as a civil rights worker.

Before our move to Alabama in 1958, our family of six was living in Yellow Springs, Ohio, where my father was a professor at Antioch College. Rather suddenly his research agenda led to work at the University of Alabama Medical Center, and before you could say Ulysses S. Grant, we found ourselves living in the deep South.

I was a teenager and fitting into teenage culture is always hard. Actually, our entire family had a hard time fitting in. We talked and dressed funny, we held unpopular views, and we attended the Unitarian Church, known for its liberal, progressive beliefs. Each welcoming neighbor would almost immediately ask what church we went to. When we responded, “Unitarian,” the inevitable response was, “Isn’t that the church in the woods near the zoo?” It was. Actually, it was a blessing to be near the zoo. On those Sunday mornings when we received bomb threats, we could quickly escort the Sunday school classes across the street for an impromptu field trip. Why bomb threats? Because many in the church criticized Governor George Wallace while actively supporting integration.

My parents, my three sisters, and I were all dismayed to see the ‘white only’ signs over drinking fountains and at the entrance to swimming pools and parks. When we went to movies, we watched the black children filing up to the balcony … the only place they were allowed to sit. Although I was white, I found it frightening. In Ohio, my best friend, Sandra Anderson, happened to be African-American. Her father, Walter Anderson, was the chair of Antioch’s music department. Although Walter taught a few children, he mostly worked with college students, including Coretta Scott who later became Coretta Scott King.

When Coretta, an education major, needed to fulfill her student teaching requirement, the Yellow Springs public schools refused to accommodate her. She was able to fulfill her requirement through a patchwork of teaching positions, including teaching music in the small nursery school my mother ran in our home. My point is that the race thing for me is personal. Although I was too young to remember Coretta Scott, I do remember Sandra who is still a close friend. As kids, we had played jump rope and hopscotch together, and prowled the campus where both our fathers taught. At our progressive elementary school, we played a version of hide-and-go-seek that we called “underground railroad.” Indeed, our small Ohio town had been an important link in the underground railroad a century earlier.

But, back to Alabama. As soon as I graduated from high school, I returned to Ohio, becoming a freshman at Antioch in 1962. The following year, efforts to integrate Birmingham went into high gear. With the leadership of Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., African Americans began peacefully claiming their rights. But the response, as we know, was not peaceful. Reverend King was jailed in April of 1963, and it was then that he wrote his famous Letter from the Birmingham Jail. This included the familiar passage, “We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly. Never again can we afford to live with the narrow, provincial ‘outside agitator’ idea.”

A couple months after Reverend King was released from jail, Governor Wallace blocked the door of the University of Alabama, attempting to prevent two black students from enrolling. In September, President John Kennedy federalized the National Guard to insure the peaceful integration of two public schools. Five days later, the 16th Street Baptist Church was bombed and four young girls were killed. Two months after that, in November, John Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas. All this happened in 1963 when Sandra and I were college sophomores, studying at Ohio colleges a few hours apart. Many of us coming of age at this time were stunned and frightened about the violence against those working peacefully for change.

At the same time, thousands, millions, of people, regardless of race, were in awe of the emergence of Martin Luther King and his principle of nonviolence. I’d like to also credit a relatively unsung hero – a Unitarian minister who gave a sermon in 1853 that Reverend King drew upon in some of his speeches. This Unitarian minister was Reverend Theodore Parker.  He took personal risk in breaking the law and sheltering runaway slaves in his Boston home.

Reverend Parker died shortly before the Civil War, not living to see emancipation or even the election of Abraham Lincoln. But before he died, in an 1853 sermon, he proclaimed his moral philosophy in words that were later echoed by Martin Luther King, and more recently by President Barack Obama. He said: “Look at the facts of the world. You see a continual and progressive triumph of [what is morally] right. I do not pretend to understand the moral universe; the arc is a long one.” Parker continued, “My eye reaches but little ways; I cannot calculate the curve — by the experience of sight; I can divine it by conscience. And from what I see, I am sure it bends towards justice.”

Reverend King read Reverend Parker’s sermons in seminary and found the concept of the moral arc to be a powerful one. He carried it forward while distilling it into a single sentence: “The arc of the moral universe is long but it bends towards justice.” In a few minutes I’ll share how President Obama has also built on the legacy of this concept.
But, for now, I want to return to my own small story within this huge, centuries-long, American struggle.

In 1965, a small group of students and recent graduates from Harvard Law School went to Montgomery, Alabama, and founded The Southern Courier, a newspaper with the goal of providing balanced coverage of the civil rights movement.

In winter of ’67, The Courier needed a reporter to cover Birmingham. Still at college in Ohio, I was seeking a work-study position for that quarter, and this position interested me. I was soon off to Montgomery on a Greyhound Bus. There I was issued a car and a camera and sent on to Birmingham.

One morning, I read a one-inch report buried in the back pages of The Birmingham News. A black man had been spotted running near a school where, in the past, they claimed break-ins had been attempted. The report said that the police yelled stop and then fired a warning shot into the air. Later they found the body of 18-year-old James Small. That was how the Birmingham News reported it. The officers apparently needed only to express mild surprise that a shot fired into the air could somehow lodge squarely in someone’s back. In Birmingham, in those days, a police report like this was not questioned by the authorities. No official investigation would ensue. This was the type of investigating that fell to reporters from The Southern Courier.

I made my way to the police station to request the official report. While waiting for a clerk to retrieve the file from a back room, I adopted a nonchalant attitude in front of the police officer in charge. Another officer, on other business, strode into the building, the door slamming behind him. His hand was bandaged.

“What happened to you?” asked a policeman who was milling about — quickly adding in jocular tones, “Didn’t I tell you never to hit a Negro in the head?!” But he didn’t say “Negro.” The officers – all white, of course — laughed. A black couple sat waiting for something, keeping their eyes lowered.

“What business is this matter to you, little lady?” the officer in charge now asked. I said I was a reporter for The Southern Courier, and fortunately he didn’t appear to have heard of it. He handed me the report, and I read that Officer R.G. Haltom had fired “To apprehend a fleeing felon.” Hmmn. Not exactly how it was reported in The Birmingham News. I wondered just where the cover-up had begun. What evidence did they have that he was a felon? No break in had occurred that night, nor – I later learned – in the past.

After my visit to the police station, I knew I needed to meet with James’ family to get their side of the story. I enlisted the help of a friend of mine from high school. My friend Joyce had been raised to be an elitist Southern lady, but had rebelled against her own culture. She still dressed in pastel and had every blond hair in place. Yet she was well aware of Birmingham’s racist policies, and events like this angered her. She was an important ally for several reasons, including the fact that I did not know my way around the city.

We located the Smalls’ home and now sat in their living room where grief hung heavily in the air. Charlena, the sister, said that James had gotten home late after a date and the two of them were talking late into the night. Maybe, as people their age are apt to do, they were constructing dreams for the future or solving the world’s problems. Around 1:30, they ran out of cigarettes and Charlena convinced James to go buy some from a machine at a nearby gas station. It was not wise for a young black man to be on the streets late at night. But, teenagers are not known for always using good judgment.

When James did not return promptly, Charlena eventually fell asleep on the sofa.
Early the next morning, Mrs. Small said she was awakened by a phone call.
“Do you have a son named James Small?”
“Yes, sir.”
“Well, you better come get him ‘cause he’s in the morgue.”

Mrs. Small sat there now on her sofa, weeping, as Charlena tried to comfort her. Charlena then told us that when they went to identify the body, they were handed James’ effects – simply his hat, his money clip, and a fresh unopened pack of cigarettes. They learned that James was killed just two blocks from his home. Mrs. Small, clearly heartbroken, said that she was active in the movement and couldn’t help wondering if this was some kind of retaliation.

Dr. King had said in his Letter from the Birmingham Jail that in any nonviolent campaign the first step is the collection of facts. So Joyce and I went to the funeral home to find out the truth about how James died.

The funeral would be the following day, so today the funeral home was empty but for the two of us, the friendly black proprietor, and James Small. The proprietor knew we were here to ascertain the location of the bullet that killed this young man. James had clearly been a strong and healthy young man in the prime of his life. The proprietor showed us exactly where the bullet had entered his back. The “warning shot.”

Joyce and I exchanged looks with the proprietor and the three of us shook our heads in sorrow. After thanking the proprietor, we stepped back outside into the harsh February sunlight. Later that day, I filed my report with The Southern Courier and it was soon front page news in that Montgomery-based newspaper.

A few evenings later, I went to a meeting at a black Baptist Church where Reverend Fred Shuttlesworth, of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, spoke. “Every time you turn around, some Negro’s being killed by some trigger happy policeman in Birmingham,” he said. “Every time one of your sons is accused of some crime, some policeman’s bullets serve as judge, jury, and courts.” Indeed, there had been 14 killings in 12 months. He invited the Smalls to come up and tell their story. Still overcome with grief, they asked if I would speak for them. I was extremely shy at the time, but something about that pack of cigarettes spoke of a tragic truth that needed telling. So I made my way up to the pulpit and told the story of James Small.

And now I have shared this story with you. I feel it’s important to tell this story because it represents thousands of casualties of the civil rights movement – African-Americans who were shot, lynched, beaten, jailed, or attacked by police dogs. It’s incredible that in the face of scorn, hatred, and violence, blacks in the South continued to demonstrate peacefully for their rights.

One thing I learned is that much of the courage and resolve of those days was born and nurtured in churches.  Just this morning, exactly 50 years after the bombing at the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church, I heard in an NPR report that the sermon to be delivered that morning was called, “A Love That Forgives.”  Carolyn McKinstry remembers that.  She was just a young girl and lost four dear classmates.  Ms. McKinstry, now a minister, has dedicated her life to the ongoing struggle for peace, love, and justice.

Much has changed in the past fifty years.  Not enough – but much has changed. Who could have even dreamed in the ’60s that a few decades later our country would elect a black President. On election night 2007, many of us gathered with friends to watch Barack Obama accept his position as our president-elect.

As Obama made his way to the front of the stage, he walked in measured steps as if aware that his steps were made possible by earlier steps – the weary steps of maids and gardeners in Montgomery, Alabama, walking for miles on tired feet to get to work during the bus boycott – the steps of protestors crossing a bridge in Selma as they faced police dogs, heavily-armed officers on horseback, tear gas, and rocks from jeering crowds. And other steps: Steps of school children facing fire hoses and fists as they simply exercised their constitutional right to demonstrate – the steps of Rev. King, climbing to a podium to speak to thousands, gathered at the Lincoln Memorial in our nation’s capital.

Obama said, “If there is anyone out there who still doubts that America is a place where all things are possible; who still wonders if the dream of our founders is alive in our time; who still questions the power of our democracy, tonight is your answer.” Obama gave his acceptance speech at Grant Park, the same Chicago park that saw violent confrontations between anti-war demonstrators and police during the 1968 Democratic Convention. Then, this park had been the site of animosity, violence, and despair. Now, it hosted a rainbow crowd in the throes of peaceful jubilation.

President Obama’s road has been rocky. But he appears to have the same visionary stance as Reverend Parker and Martin Luther King. One of my favorite quotes of his is, “Let us not be defined by our differences, but by what we share in common.” And, Obama has built on the legacy of Parker’s vision of the moral arc by saying, “The arc doesn’t bend on its own. It bends because we put our hands on it and bend it in the direction of justice.”

The Smalls, now all deceased, were ordinary people living in extraordinary times. They lived with dignity and they practiced nonviolence. I’m sure that Mrs. Small’s fight for civil rights was, in part, a fight for the future of her children. Yet it was other children, not hers, who ultimately reaped the rewards of her sacrifice and the sacrifice of so many like her.

For example, consider a child named Annetta Watts, born in 1959 to a nurse and her coal-miner husband in Birmingham. Annetta was only four years old when Dr. King wrote that famous letter — and when that bomb went off in church. She was seven when James Small was shot in her city and eight when Dr. King was assassinated. Most likely, she heard talk of these events both at home and at church.

Years later, with the governor no longer blocking the entrance, Annetta Watts was able to attend the University of Alabama. In 2003, Annetta Watts Nunn became the first woman, and the second African American, to be named Chief of Police of the City of Birmingham. She promised the people of her city that the police were committed to serving everyone with dignity and respect. No longer are racist jokes told in the station lobby by an all-white police force.

And consider another child – the daughter of Governor George Wallace. Peggy Wallace Kennedy spoke not long ago of the marchers in Selma, saying, “I knew in my heart that their cause was just, but unlike them I did not let my voice be heard.” She, the daughter of a segregationist icon, supported the candidacy of an African-American to be president of the United States. Remember, this is not about politics. This is about how far we’ve moved along the moral arc of the universe — toward justice.

My friend Sandra and I still keep in touch. About the only disagreement we’ve had was during Obama’s first campaign. She supported Hillary Clinton, and I — supported someone else. She’s writing her memoirs now. Almost every week, I get another installment from her. When we were about eight years old, we pricked our fingers and pressed them together to be blood sisters. And, to this day, we sign our letters, “Your sister.”

Well, even if you’re not writing your memoirs, I encourage those of you who have seen positive change in the world to talk about the way things were – and how far we’ve come. Talk about the way that hard times in our country have inspired people to summon strength they didn’t know they had and to join with others in working for social justice.

When you see things that need changing, remember the people of Birmingham, and others, who dared to dream of change and peacefully work for it, despite huge, frightening, and even deadly obstacles. As Police Chief Watts said, “The Movement was led by members of the faith community who came outside the walls of their places of worship to change not only our community, but the world.”

There is still much work to be done, much that needs changing. Let us continue this work, moving ever-forward on the moral arc toward justice.

3 thoughts on “Bending Toward Justice: Birmingham Then and Now

  1. I’m in awe of your experiences and your courage, Joan. I’m sure you would say it was nothing in comparison to those who died for what the believed, but I’m very proud to call someone a friend, whose hands helped bend the moral arc toward justice.

  2. It took so many followers to march from Selma to Birmingham. They helped build that arc bending toward justice. Thanks for being one of the leaders. I still remember being among the whites welcomed into the black’s homes in Selma to join the protest and watching as President Lyndon Johnson ended his talk to the nation with “We shall overcome”. What a thrill ran through the crowd.

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