Today’s guest columnist is Mike Diccicco.
I’m a white guy that grew up in the 60’s in Birmingham. Moved there in 2nd grade, left after graduating high school in 1967.
During that whole time, I had one black friend, a kid named Jackie, same age as me, who lived in an old farmhouse a half-mile through the woods from our modest rancher on Lynn Acres Drive in Roebuck.
Jackie and I were friends for a year or two. Then my family moved to East Lake when I was in 4th or 5th grade and I never saw him again.
I’m 73 now, reflecting on those years, all those important moments, remembering some things, misremembering others. Filling in gaps by reading and by talking to current friends of both races who lived in Birmingham during the sixties. Also remembering Jackie. Wondering how his life turned out.
As kids, Jackie and I had, not surprisingly, zero conversations about race or segregation or bigotry. We mostly just threw an under-inflated football back and forth, pretending we were Alabama or Auburn football stars..
But I’m betting, if we’d actually engaged in a real conversation back then about Birmingham’s racial challenges, even as a 9-year old, Jackie would have been reasonably well-informed.
And I would have sounded like a dummy. Ignorant about the conditions of Jackie’s life in a segregated society. Totally unaware of the gathering storm.
I have no statistical basis for this opinion, and no sociological studies to back it up, but I’m pretty sure this is valid: During the sixties, the black parents of Birmingham typically did an excellent job of informing and communicating with their children on the issues of race. Black educators, ministers and Sunday school teachers helped, but parents played a dominant role.
I’ve also come to believe, conversely, that a large number of white parents rarely spoke to their kids about the city and country’s racial struggles, even during the height of the protests and demonstrations. Again, no data. Just observation and anecdotal evidence.
In our household, which grew to seven boys and two girls while living in Birmingham, I cannot recall a single substantive conversation about the city’s racial struggles during its most turbulent years, 1961-64. I remember that my mom once quoted a neighbor as saying that the Freedom Riders were agitators from the North, sent to cause trouble down South. But she never took the time to tell any of us kids whether she agreed with that opinion, or not. Or much about who the Freedom Riders were.
I do remember that we said the rosary (we were a family of practicing Catholics) after we heard about the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church. But we did not talk about that horrific incident afterward. We never discussed, as a family, or even individually with our parents, how hate had turned bigoted white men into killers of black children.
My parents—by example, but not through dialogue with their kids—did communicate their belief in the dignity of all, no matter the race. The n-word was never uttered in our home. Any interactions between Mom and Dad and “colored people”—that’s what we were taught to say—demonstrated my parents’ conviction to the idea that we were all created equal under God, and that every human being deserves our courtesy and respect.
So why no family discussion of the civil rights struggles taking place in our city? Not sure, though my father (a usually articulate man) did a woefully awkward job at the sex talk with me, so perhaps handling sensitive issues with his sons may have simply been too much for him.
Beyond that, I’ve also come to believe that my parents were not unique in their silence.
Having had multiple recent conversations with friends of mine from the 60s, it seems that many white parents—no matter their individual beliefs—did very little talking with their kids on the touchy topic of race.
Selected comments from a few recent and informal interviews with other white 73-year olds:
“We never discussed it—I don’t know why—though I do remember that I was taught to fear black men.”
“I don’t remember ever sitting down and talking about it. I believe my parents were fair and honest with the black people who worked for them—though they would never have invited a black family to dinner. In fact, they were more apt to complain about prejudice directed toward them, as Italian Catholics.”
“My parents believed in ‘separate but equal’ and that Martin Luther King was a communist—but there were no conversations at all. The subject was pretty much ignored.”
In contrast, I’ve heard from a number of black friends whose experiences were exactly the opposite. Race, and the struggles playing out in Birmingham, were everyday family topics.
“I was able to participate in marches and demonstrations . . . “
“We talked about what was going on all the time. For one important reason. SURVIVAL.”
“We all knew what happened to Emmitt Till.”
To get a deeper sense of those black parent-child conversations, take a few moments someday to visit an important window to our past, kidsinbirmingham1963.org, a website dedicated to capturing the thoughts and the feelings of kids—both white and black—who lived through that historic era.
The memories shared by African Americans on that website are particularly vivid. They were kids (like me) during the sixties, but they knew the issues, knew the leaders, were aware of the events taking place around them. They also understood the dangers they faced as black children in a world built by white men to keep them “in their place.”
Yes, it was all sixty years ago. Does it make any difference today as to why many white parents of the sixties didn’t talk so much about race while black parents did? Maybe not.
But I have come to believe something in my intervening years. Blinding glimpse of what I hope is obvious: Discussing our country’s continuing racial challenges, among ourselves and with our kids, and maybe even our parents, is a helluva lot healthier than silence. Especially in light of Charlottesville, and a Buffalo supermarket, and a South Carolina church.
We need to keep talking.
That’s my opinion anyway. Sure wish I could ask Jackie what he thinks.
Mike Diccicco spent 45 years in the ad agency business in Philadelphia before turning to writing fiction. His debut novel, Beyond All Sense and Reason, is historical fiction set in Birmingham, 1963-64. It is available from your local bookseller, from Amazon, and from the museum gift shop of the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute.
David Sher is the founder and publisher of ComebackTown. He’s past Chairman of the Birmingham Regional Chamber of Commerce (BBA), Operation New Birmingham (REV Birmingham), and the City Action Partnership (CAP).
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