BIRMINGHAM, Ala. — Ten sticks of dynamite. Four dead little girls. It was the darkest day in the history of civil rights in America, and it is still known as “Birmingham Sunday,” a name and a memory that decades later make the good people of this city cringe.
Birmingham and much of the South have come a long way since the awful events of Sept. 15, 1963, when bombs planted by racists filled with hate killed four young black girls at the 16th Street Baptist Church. By that evening, two other African-American children were killed; one was shot by police, the other gunned down by a white youth.
My wife and I visited the 16th Street Baptist Church recently with our daughter, who lives in Birmingham. We toured the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute just across the street. We informally hooked up with a class of 18 eighth-grade students from a private school in Beverly, Mass., all of them with notebooks and pens — and all of them white.
I struck up a conversation with their teacher, James Watras, who said the children were exploring some of the most significant sites in the civil rights struggles of the 1960s, including stops in Selma and Montgomery. I asked whether his students would forward their impressions of what they learned to me after they got home.
I posed two questions to the kids from Massachusetts:
How did your trip reinforce or change your feelings about race relations in America? What did you learn about yourself and your country?
Not surprisingly, their experience was a revelation for most of them, as the candor of their responses was for me.
Consider the comments of Benedikt A.: “I had never actually talked to a black person before,” he acknowledged. But the trip helped him realize, he said, that “skin color is just like hair color or eye color. It doesn’t change who you are.”
Carly L. noted that eliminating racism is an ongoing struggle, because America doesn’t like to change. “It’s easy to say now that I would have done the right thing, that I would not have been racist,” she said. “But if I had been born and raised in a household that believed in racism, how do I know?”
Stefan K. reflected on the economic realities of racism. “White people still have better jobs and homes. It’s not the equal country people think it is.”
Holly S. said her trip awakened her to the lack of “unintentional” diversity in her life back home in New England, “which is worse than doing it consciously. If you do something out of choice, you notice it. If you do something out of habit and tradition, you don’t.”
Sascha D. said her experiences in Alabama opened her eyes to the real world in ways that her classroom studies had not.
It was the same for Louis Q. “Running my hand over the martyrs’ names on the civil rights memorial is enough to change anyone’s point of view,” he said.
Sammy P. admitted that he had believed racism in America was ancient history. “It’s more recent than I thought.”
Grace S. was especially insightful for an eighth grader. Because the fight for civil rights was most visible in the South, she said, the South has made the greatest strides toward equality. “It is much more integrated than many places in the North,” she observed, something a lot of folks in the North will have a difficult time accepting.
Having spent a lot of time on both sides of the Mason-Dixon Line, I have to agree with Grace, at least anecdotally.
The Birmingham Civil Rights Institute doesn’t hide the ugly past of the South. It lays it out in shameful black and white. A bookstore pamphlet leaves no room for misinterpretation of the segregation ordinances adopted by the city of Birmingham in the 1950s.
“Section 597, Negroes and White Persons Not To Play Together: It shall be unlawful for a Negro and a white person to play together or in company with each other in any game of cards, dice, dominoes, checkers, baseball, softball, football, basketball, or similar games.”
Another section allowed the transport of both races in streetcars and buses, but only by “confining each race to occupancy of the area of such streetcar so set apart for it.” It was the same in Montgomery, of course, and the Massachusetts kids now know a lot more about a courageous woman named Rosa Parks.
Before much of white America puts Black History Month out of its mind for another year, it’s worth pondering what some thoughtful youngsters had to say about discovering a painful chapter in their country’s past.
Ten sticks. Four little girls. It still hurts.
Thomas Walton is the retired editor and vice president of The Blade. His column appears every other Monday. His commentary, “Life As We Know It,” can be heard each Monday at 5:44 p.m. on WGTE-FM 91.
Contact him at: firstname.lastname@example.org