White folks, no need for shame when shielded from truth as kids

Amos Townsend
Amos Townsend

Today’s guest columnist is Amos Townsend.

As a Black child growing up in Birmingham, Alabama in the 1960s, the information about the times I lived in were shaped around messaging from ministers, particularly those associated with the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), Black radio, and feedback from family members who lived outside the South.

I never had reason to wonder what was being reported, or more importantly not reported, in the dominant media of the times such as The Birmingham News or The Birmingham Post-Herald.

I knew first-hand that segregation existed in Birmingham and that really mean things had been done to Blacks in that era to stall the march of integration. That included multiple bombings of the homes of Attorney Arthur Shores and Black ministers advancing the cause of Civil Rights.

In those times, it never dawned on me what white children my age knew or were being told about the protests, police and fire mistreatment of Black people, and day to day circumstances (insults, assaults, and bogus arrests) under which we lived. We lived in two separate worlds, separate but certainly not equal, and did not get the same information about our life and times.

Frankly, I had never consciously considered that the reality was that kids were not exposed to the same “truth” about what was happening in Birmingham.

By the Grace of God, some of us formed associations and friendships some fifty (50) years later in our participation as storytellers on the Kids in Birmingham 1963 website. Those associations of people who were Black and white kids in Birmingham in 1963, could not have happened during our youth because the deeply rooted segregation kept our worlds as far apart as possible. Nevertheless, we were the “Kids” of the times.

During the course of one of the regular Zoom sessions that are held, “Kids Connect,” we were able to hear from a Kid who had authored a fictional version of times in Birmingham set in the 1960s. As the discussion unfolded, some of the reactions heard from white kids included embarrassment, shame, and regret for not knowing what was happening to the Black community until the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in September 1963. That was the one occurrence that could not be hidden or not reported.

I was taken aback by the expression of these sentiments of embarrassment, guilt, shame, and regret coming from people who were kids at the time just like I was. In the attempts to isolate children from less than pleasant things, parents sometimes choose to ignore or cover up hurtful or even shameful acts. I can imagine that white parents were exercising what I perceive to have been the choices of the time.

One choice was to just shield children from news about the atrocities of the reaction to the Civil Rights Movement. Another choice was to share the information but from the perspective of inculcating a child into the racist ways and views of some.

Only in retrospect did I understand how I was shielded as a Black child by the explanations of why we couldn’t go to Kiddie Land Amusement Park at the Alabama State Fairgrounds in Birmingham. To be told it was a waste of money was a shield to cover up that Black children weren’t allowed to go to the park.

I shared with my colleagues that I did not have an expectation for them to feel guilty or embarrassed by not knowing what was happening when we were children as it was clear that they had been shielded from information their parents thought more difficult to explain than ignore.

Feeling ashamed or embarrassed by what they grew to understand after they were no longer children did not seem productive to me. My thoughts went to the question of after you knew, how did that guide you in being the person you are today—informed, compassionate, and engaged—as compared to what was the norm during our youthful days.

In contrast to the days of youth, the information age and practices have eliminated the wide scale ignoring of events taking place in our society, this country, and the world. In this age of social media, powerful cell phones with video capability, the twenty-four-hour (24-hour) news cycle on cable stations, and online publications with daily deadlines as compared to weekly ones from the old days, it is virtually impossible to hide the events of the day like they did the horrific things that happened in the 1960s.

Kids today are exposed to all kinds of information. Some is objective and some is not. The question then becomes, how to discern the truth from lies and/or misinformation. They won’t have a time or reflection or retrospective after they find out the truth later. The hope I have for them is that they would know and recognize the truth contemporaneously, so they have no later regrets to bear.

The bigger dilemma for today’s youth is to wade through all the outputs called “facts” coming at them every day and finding the truth in there somewhere. I am reminded of the Bible verse at John 8:32 (NIV) that says, “Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” The challenge for young people today is to figure out what do you have to understand or be clear about to be about to get to “Then.”

It is easy for me to distinguish between how I feel about my white contemporaries and my hope that they get past those feelings of shame and embarrassment for their realization of things they were sheltered from.

I can operate with them by asking, in imitation of Senator Howard Baker’s question during the Watergate Hearing, what did they know and when did they know it? For not knowing in their youth, they bear no need for regret if the information was not available to them.

I have a different perspective on young people of today, however. With all the information and sources out there today, the question is not whether information exists, it is how you validate the information as true BEFORE acting on it.

There is no excuse for not being aware of the injustice, disparate treatment, and abuses of power that exist today. There are too many sources to go to and all of them won’t be “fake news” or whatever is the cover for not taking the time to find out the facts and thereby the truth.

We need to resolve ourselves to always search for the truth so that our decisions, thoughts, and activities are rooted truth. Once we know the truth, not some campaign slogan, we can make reasonable judgements about how we will behave in our society.

Amos C. Townsend, was born in Birmingham, Alabama where he attended public elementary and high schools as well as obtained B.A. and M.A. degrees from the University of Alabama at Birmingham.  He left Birmingham as to serve in the Federal government in the inaugural group of Presidential Management Interns (now called Presidential Fellows). He served for 33 years at the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) retiring from his Senior Executive Service (SES) position in August 2011.  He has since been consulting for Federal Management Systems, Inc. in Washington, DC Metropolitan Area.  He is married and has five children and three grandchildren.

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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Invite David to speak for free to your group about how we can have a more prosperous metro Birmingham. dsher@amsher.com

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17 thoughts on “White folks, no need for shame when shielded from truth as kids”

  1. Thank you for this storyline of my own youth. I remember standing in front of our TV the Sunday of the 16th Street Church bombing being confused and horrified by what was being said. My adult family was as horrified as myself but knew what had happened and was sickened these children had lost their lives. As an adult it is a shame I carry and pray we never repeat these sins.

    1. Hello Amos
      I wish more Black men and women would tell their unique stories about life growing up in this city and county and state. White people who grew up here at this same time have a story. Today’s young people want to know the truth and facts. As a free Black I choose to move here from the Republic of Texas. I see the vestiges of racism each day of the week but have learned to navigate among these Confederates . Wish you guys would return to help us fight the power elites. Keep writing please for obvious reasons.

  2. What a humbling piece to read. This man is somehow able to give the benefit of the doubt to those who, let’s face it, have historically not been so good to him and people like him.

    I do agree with the overall premise put forth. As kids, we are so consumed with our own imagination that we don’t always see the context or subtext of situations. I realize parent’s intentions are that they want their kids to have a good life. I think that can happen while also teaching them about our reality as a country and as a people. There are issues this country has been dealing with for centuries. I think it is time we take a direct approach to solving them head on. Healing our country is worth it.

    1. Remember we have 13 school systems in Jefferson County with wide resource disparities that has its origins in racial segregation and class segregation. Young people transition out of these bubbles every day and many choose to live and work in desegregated environments . The process is slow but positive changes is happening as we speak.

  3. Veiled jabs, and not one shred of evidence for the

    “There is no excuse for not being aware of the injustice, disparate treatment, and abuses of power that exist today.”

    1. It’s not a jab, it’s fact. It’s impossible to live in a bubble these days and not know the truth.

      Amos, thank you for writing this. I was born in 1962 and was too young to know what was happening, but even when I was older I was shielded from the truth from my parents, and we were not taught anything about it in school. . I was in college before I learned everything and saw video footage for the first time and I was horrified. I think my parents did what other white parents did at the time. They didn’t discuss it, and maybe that’s because they carried shame, as well. Regardless, thank you for your compassion, understanding and grace. This is a beautiful write up.

  4. Not one shred of evidence? So what “injustice, disparate treatment, and abuses of power” are you denying?

  5. Thank you for your powerful insights, Mr. Townsend. I was a white kid in Birmingham in 1963, eight years old. I am often surprised at white people my age who say “I didn’t know” what was going on in the city at that time. My parents encouraged me to read and keep up with what was happening in the world around me. My father would sometimes take me to work with him in the summers and I would meet all of his clients, Black and white. My parents were by no means liberal or activist, but they didn’t shield me, either. The church bombing, of course, figuratively shook us all out of our beds but I was aware of what was happening before that crucible morning in September 1963.

    On a lighter note, since you mentioned Kiddie Land: When Kiddie Land at Fair Park started being integrated, my parents took me. I wanted to ride that dinky little roller coaster they had. The ride was crowded and I was in a seat by myself. The attendant put a Black child, about my age, in the seat next to me and lowered the guardrail. Before the ride started, I looked over at my seatmate and said “hey.” He ignored me until the ride started. As we were pulling the first little rise on the ride, he glanced over and sneered “You soda cracker!” I looked straight ahead and never said another word.

    1. Well Edward what an introduction you had in the roller coaster!!!I am very surprised the attendant placed you a car with a Black kid? I assumed all the employees were White at Kiddie Land?

  6. Amos Townsend has written with a clarity, kindness and compassion to whites that Blacks rarely received. Today in Birmingham racism is alive and well. In mountain brook home to many of the civic, cultural and business leaders 70% of the voters voted for a vulgar, racist who abused women. Children may not do what adults tell them, they will mimic adult behavior. The evil of the past continues to impact the present and will impede the future. There is little if any appetite for the truth. Black people in Birmingham have spent generations trying not to make white people uncomfortable. A few Black people are willing to speak that uncomfortable truth however it comes with substantial risk. Most prefer to nod their heads, maybe wait for the next playlist or V.I.P. gathering.

  7. I do not disagree with what he wrote about, he is 100% correct. However I do disagree that Black is capitalized all over he article and White is not. This indicates to me a racist attitude with the writer. I understand where he is coming from as I was in a minority growing up in a Mexican community. It was about 85% to 15%, but that does not excuse something who indicates he is progressive to belittle anyone of any race.

    1. Why would that bother you so much? Do you think his capitalizing black means he thinks blacks are superior to whites? If he really thought so, I think he would say it.

        1. Thanks. I’m guessing that Robert, though he says he agrees “100%” has some issues with the writer. I doubt it’s just the capitalization.

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