Today’s guest columnist is Carol Edge.
Everyone knows the history, knows that Birmingham was aka the most segregated city in the nation, knows that Birmingham was aka Bombingham, and if they don’t know the litany of events in 1963 — well, they ought to.
American history is yoked to civil rights history. It’s what we’re founded on, what we have grandly succeeded at and dismally failed at.
Birmingham is not just in the Heart of Dixie, it is smack at the heart of our Great American Paradox, a constant tug of war between civil rights and civil wrongs.
Birmingham was, as has been said, ground zero of the civil rights movement in 1963; it was also ground zero for my coming of age. A time and place so fraught with momentous events and emotions, from the most personal to the most worldly, that a 17 year old could be rocketed through a lifetime of experience simply by paying attention.
Maybe I paid too much attention.
I felt that the civil rights war (a word that seemed more appropriate than movement) was Real Life, and that’s what I yearned to take part in. But my family and background weren’t about to let a White teenage daughter loose in that battleground. I vented my anger and frustration in sophomoric poems about my city’s “jaundiced eye” and tried witlessly to befriend the maid hired by my mother.
My distress must have overwhelmed my parents too. When I begged to drop out of Shades Valley in my senior year, they allowed it. My semester of freedom began under George Wallace’s gubernatorial mantra of “segregation forever.”
The Birmingham spring saw sit-ins at White lunch counters and felt bombs destroying Black homes. Easter week cringed as city police officers released dogs to attack Black citizens. Martin Luther King, Fred Shuttlesworth, and Ralph Abernathy were arrested. Black worshippers were turned away from White churches on Easter Day.
Restless with outrage at the world and a teenage rage for experience, I ranted naively. At 15 I had wanted to join marches. Like a child seeking adventure, I envied the fight for equality without understanding what it meant for those in the fight. But at 17 I wanted barricades in the streets.
During this time, King wrote his “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” but I wouldn’t read it until years later. All I knew then was that he had rebuked the leaders of the religious community. Unaware yet of Malcolm X, that was my first clue that King’s pacifism held a blade after all. Children younger than I were marching and going to jail!
I had yearned to do something important. But on my own, I found no way to solve the world’s problems, and my own didn’t go away.
Surprising myself, and my parents as well, I decided to return to high school. To start afresh, I enrolled in summer school at Phillips downtown. I would occasionally drive the family car. Most days I rode the city bus and felt the tensions on each side of the sign separating “White” and “Colored.”
Almost immediately at Phillips I met Ron, the person I would be with for all my life, who felt as I did about civil rights, the conventions and trappings of oppression, and virtually everything else. Before we met, each of us knew Gene Crutcher, the countercultural icon, and frequented his bohemian book shop in Five Points South. Much later, when Crutcher closed his store, he gave us the huge wooden magazine rack where once we had browsed avant-garde publications.
I had only ever been a talker, trying to speak what I believed (loudly and obnoxiously at times), but Ron was doing it. At 16, he was part of a small group gathered into a VW bus by Crutcher to attend a Pete Seeger concert at Miles College. There, clasping arms with a student on one side and activist E.D. Nixon on the other, he swayed and sang “We Shall Overcome.” Then, as Seeger began his signature act of chopping a log onstage while singing a work song, Ron caught one of the wood chips.
Ron was there for me when I was called “n-lover” in the wide halls of Phillips. I was there for him when he was not informed that he graduated top of his class. There were sympathetic, teachers, such as F. Virginia Praytor, but many more preferring conventional student behavior.
Fall semester began, we were in love, and Sixteenth Avenue Baptist Church was bombed. Again, Birmingham martyred some of its children while others thrived. In the school talent show, Ron sang and played his guitar to thunderous applause. President Kennedy was shot in Dallas, and classmates cheered at the announcement of his death.
The year that made Birmingham infamous in the eyes of the world made an indelible impression on the children and teens of the city, Black and White. That city lives now in the past, where it belongs. The hearts and minds of young people absorb, retain, extrapolate, and build on what they learn.
The young people of 1963 have had their day of building and passing it on to another generation. I believe today’s Birmingham to be far different from the one I grew up in, from the one Ron and I came of age in. Our Birmingham clung to its past, too tightly and with bloodied grip.
Here we are 60 years later. Ron and I are still coming of age together.
So is Birmingham.
All of us are wiser and stronger for the battles, won and lost. I never went to school with Black kids my age, but as a graduate student in middle age, I was taught by professors Black and younger than I. Miles College is still there, and we still have the wood chip, but Pete Seeger and E.D. Nixon are long gone. Phillips welcomed its first Black students in fall 1964.
A majority of citizens have voted for Black mayors and civic leaders. And, thankfully, Birmingham’s epithet “the most segregated city in America” no longer applies. Today’s Birmingham has turned its eye toward the future.
Carol Edge holds Birmingham and Alabama dear in her heart despite having left in 1969 and returning only to visit family and friends. Retired from a career as an editor, she writes fiction, memoir, and essay. Her first mystery novel (Blood Terminal, C.C. Edge, 2022), was named first runner-up in the mystery category in the 2023 Eric Hoffer Awards. For more information, visit caroledge.com.
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).
Invite David to speak for free to your group about how we can have a more prosperous metro Birmingham. firstname.lastname@example.org.