My husband and I just returned home from a long vacation, driving through the south. One of the places we visited was the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church and the Civil Rights Institute in Birmingham.
Four young girls were murdered on a quiet Sunday morning in that church when a racist’s bomb went off, just on the other side of the girl’s bathroom wall. There was a group of young kids on our tour. How can you explain how scared people were, how every day TVs spewed out pictures of violence, broken bodies, faces contorted with anger, fear, bewilderment. Looking at those images, it is hard to remember that the Civil Rights movement took place within living memory.
One exhibit at the Civil Rights institute caught perfectly the confusion of people, “nice” people, stuck in a time warp. There was a tape from an old TV show, CBS Reports, comprised of interviews with white people in Birmingham. One of the people interviewed was an upper class lady. She was wearing a patterned silk dress, with a huge straw hat, covered with flowers, perched firmly on her head. She was the very picture of a small town social dragon, almost a caricature.
The woman said that she and her friends didn’t understand why northerners thought southerners hated Negroes. That’s not the case at all, she said. She had been the chairlady for a UNESCO fund raising drive in Birmingham, she told the camera, that had featured drawings from children around the world. She had the idea to have a similar contest for all the grade school children in Birmingham.
A Negro boy won the contest, she said proudly. The downtown public library displayed his picture. He and his family wanted to see the picture on display, she continued, but Negroes weren’t allowed in the public library. When I found out, she continued, I made a phone call, and just like that, the library let the boy and his family in. Just took one phone call, she finished triumphantly, and the problem was solved!
Nobody writing this today, nobody who hadn‘t lived through that time, could catch her tone of oblivious self-satisfaction.