A friend from college visited me earlier this summer. She’s a great gal and it’s always terrific to see her but before she arrived, I wondered where I should take her during our visit. We have the usual amenities within easy driving distance but why bring her to some spot like another near her home? In the end, we went to the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute, a museum and memorial to the Civil Rights Struggle in Birmingham, Alabama. It was the right thing to do. Birmingham’s history with the Movement may not be what the city wants to be known for but it’s our calling card in the pages of history. Hiding from the past never helps.
Because of Birmingham’s infamous role in that struggle, explaining positive aspects of this place to the casual outsider can be difficult. (Well, some of my Caucasian friends have admitted this is hard; I haven’t got the nerve or bad manners to find out if my African-American friends here face the same issues.) In the face of bombed churches and fire-hoses, how can anyone describe warm-hearted people and neighborhoods without sounding like a fool or a racist? How can the domestic joys of tree-lined streets, southern cuisine and music be reconciled with murdered children and systematic oppression? How do you balance the good in a place that has held so much evil?
Diane McWhorter set out to do something like this in her prize-winning book, Carry Me Home. As a white child of the South she admittedly grew up “on the wrong side of the revolution” and her recollection of Birmingham’s melt-down was similar to my memory of living in Texas when President Kennedy was shot. Distanced by youth and luck from the epicenter, only the faintest reverberations of nation-shaking events initially touched either one of us. Repercussions from the 16th Street Church bombing threatened to affect her high school musical. The President’s murder upset my mother and preempted my Saturday Morning Cartoons.
Ms. McWhorter eventually realized her family might have closer ties to “Bombingham” than she originally supposed and part of Carry Me Home traces the twin strata of racism and social caste that ran through the power structure of 1960’s Birmingham and how those two methods of exclusion supported each other. The wealthiest power brokers of Birmingham limited their public resistance to integration by complaining about “outside agitators” while ignoring the circumstances that drove the agitation and privately supporting/manipulating the civil authorities that turned peaceful demonstrations into full-scale riots. These business leaders turned a blind eye to the violent actions of their local government and law enforcement much as those in governmental authority chose not to see the clandestine relationship between some of their members and the Klan. The end of legalized segregation in Birmingham wasn’t just a political victory for a coalition of under-funded, often competitive leaders. It was a David-and-Goliath struggle where David couldn’t stop fighting until Goliath realized he was wrong.
That realization came more slowly to some than others and there are still days when I despair of the future but something my husband said once comforts me. In the middle of the Rodney King riots he reminded me that Birmingham faced some ugly truths about itself in the middle of the 20th century. It wasn’t an easy or a pleasant task but, as as a result, the town lost its blinders and began the long, slow, turn towards tolerance. He went on to say that more peaceful cities often assumed they didn’t have Birmingham’s issues and ignored the pockets of hate still festering within their own borders. Only a tragedy on their own doorstep would expose the latent evil and rip away their personal blinders. In the aftermath of a tidal wave of hate-based murders, the only good thing I can hope for is that other communities are starting to recognize the problems and divisions they contain.
No atonement will bring back the dead or repair the families blasted by loss but I believe humanity tends to correct its mistakes, once it sees what they are. We saw that in the respectful, kind way all the staff and visitors treated each other at the Civil Rights Institute that day. That’s why places like the BCRI and books like Ms. McWhorter’s are important. Not only do they honor the lost, they teach us how to create a better future instead of repeating the sins of the past.