Here and there: A visit to Birmingham turns serious

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FEATURE — I grew up hearing about the idyllic 1950’s from my mom. She was born in 1942 in Southern California.

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Hemera Technologies
/iStock/Getty Images Plus, St. George News

She tells of riding hand-me down bicycles, playing cards pinned to the wheel spokes so the bike sounded like it had a motor, of climbing trees, and playing “work-up,” an egalitarian version of baseball where everyone got a chance to be the batter, for hours in the middle of the street.

She stayed out until dark and was welcomed, and often parented, by all of the other adults in the neighborhood.

As she grew into her teens, my mom joined social and academic clubs, went to walk-in movies with friends, stopped midway on her walk home from school most days at a little dive for a Coke and fries, and hit the Bob’s Big Boy after football games on Friday nights, complete with a tray attached to the car window and waitresses on roller skates.

Her family was solidly middle class and traditional. Her father was a traveling refrigerator salesman, and her mother was a stay-at-home mom who canned applesauce and hung laundry from the line in the backyard.  They had chickens, a cow and possibly a goat.

Their family of seven lived in a small three-bedroom home on a narrow, deep one-acre lot.  My mom never had a bedroom of her own.  She’d fall asleep in one of the older siblings’ beds and then was moved to the couch when the proper occupant retired for the night.

In the summer, they’d often dig a hole in the backyard, line it with canvas and fill it with water to make their own swimming pool.

She never felt rich.  But she felt like she had everything she needed, and even some of the extra things she wanted.

Even though it was the beginning of the Cold War and she periodically had to hide under her desk during elementary school bomb drills, she felt safe.

She said, “It was a magical time to grow up.”

In this file photo, a statue of Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. overlooks the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Ala., where advocates say officials are doing a good job at preserving sites linked to civil rights. Oct. 15, 2015 | Photo by Russell Contreras/Associated Press, St. George News

The same would not have been true if my mom had grown up with brown skin in a place like Birmingham, Alabama.

I was there, in that city whose moniker was “the most segregated city in America,” last week with my oldest for a national gymnastics competition and saw the difference between my mom’s 1950’s and the one there.

My son and I toured the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute one morning during a gap in competition.  The museum sits across from the infamous 16th Street Baptist Church, site of the 1963 Ku Klux Klan bombing that killed four little girls and injured some 20-odd more, and visually walks patrons through Alabama’s rough history of racial inequality and heartache.

We saw the burned-out Freedom Riders bus, bombed just outside of Birmingham on Mother’s Day in 1961.  We saw the anguish of the faces in the crowd when “Bull” Connor, the Birmingham Public Safety Commissioner, had the police unleash high-powered fire hoses on the lines of black voters as they stood to cast their ballots.

We witnessed photographs of Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth, a black preacher and activist, trying to enroll his two daughters in an all-white school the summer of 1957, three years after the Supreme Court ruled in Brown vs. Board of Education.  A KKK mob attacked him for his efforts, beating the Reverend with chains, baseball bats and brass knuckles.

My son and I read Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail” in a little corner of the museum just across town from the actual jail, where on Easter Sunday 1963 King laid out the case to the white clergymen who were asking him to be patient as to why it was that he couldn’t do that:

Perhaps it is easy for those who have never felt the stinging darts of segregation to say, “Wait.” But when you have seen vicious mobs lynch your mothers and fathers at will and drown your sisters and brothers at whim; when you have seen hate filled policemen curse, kick and even kill your black brothers and sisters . . . when you suddenly find your tongue twisted and your speech stammering as you seek to explain to your six year old daughter why she can’t go to the public amusement park that has just been advertised on television, and see tears welling up in her eyes when she is told that Funtown is closed to colored children, and see ominous clouds of inferiority beginning to form in her little mental sky, and see her beginning to distort her personality by developing an unconscious bitterness toward white people; when you have to concoct an answer for a five year old son who is asking: ‘Daddy, why do white people treat colored people so mean?’ . . . then you will understand why we find it difficult to wait.

— Letter from Birmingham Jail, Martin Luther King Jr.

Gabby Anderson, left, and counter-protester Justice Slayton have a discussion during an All Lives Matter protest in St. George, Utah, on June 5, 2020. | Photo by Chris Reed, St. George News

And we witnessed the voice of a black teenager girl living in Birmingham tell a reporter on an old black and white newsreel, “This is hell.  Shouldn’t nobody live here.”

This was not the 1950s and ’60s of my mother’s youth.  Sadly, it is not the 1950s and ’60s that should have been anyone’s youth in America – or anywhere else.

But it was.  And we should talk about it.  Talk about it today, and tomorrow and the day after until we figure out how to make it never happen again.  Because Birmingham, the most segregated city in America, still kind of feels that way today.

Copyright St. George News, LLC, 2021, all rights reserved.

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