Sweet Home Alabama: Revolution and Reconciliation in "Bombingham"

Not knowing where to go in Birmingham didn’t seem to matter. She just grabbed us with several turns onto one-way streets that placed us right in front of the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute. Echoes of dogs and fire hoses, children screaming and bombs exploding reminded us of the historic importance of this city in the struggle for civil rights, human dignity, and social justice for all people. The museum is opposite the four-acre Kelly Ingram Park, a staging ground for the civil and social unrest of the 1960’s. The park, the original point of massive demonstrations and confrontations, including a children’s march from the adjacent church, is laid out to create a circular Freedom Walk which takes the visitor through a series of sculptural sites and structures depicting the assault by police dogs and fire hoses that shocked the world and led to passage of major civil rights legislation throughout the country. The four fountains at the center of the Freedom Walk commemorate the ghastly deaths of four children murdered in the 1963 KKK bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church, opposite the park entrance. As soon as one leaves the Civil Rights Museum, an excellent historical tour itself, you’re immediately drawn into the park where you can’t help but reflect on the struggles, the indignations and ultimate success of the will of a people to overcome generations of oppression.
As we paused at the sculpture of a police dog attacking a terrified child held by an officer, we introduced ourselves to a tall black man also captivated by this scene. Norman Hatley, a military veteran, was raised in North Memphis, in a neighborhood near Clare’s childhood home. With the images and history of racist oppression fresh in our minds, we apologized for the white racism in our shared history. We parted with greater sense of appreciation for the power of this special place where people can encounter one another in the spirit of reconciliation and forgiveness.

Before we left the Freedom Walk, two long-time Birmingham natives called us over and beckoned us to join them at their vantage point from a park bench. Guarding a black plastic bag that held some of their possessions, Sam Owens, who said he was a nephew of 1936 Olympic track star Jesse Owens, reflected on the condition of the park before the civil rights movement. With a pointed reminder that “You know what all you folks did to us,” he recounted the high weeds, the snakes and dirt, and the huge shade trees that framed their original park.

“…One night some rich white folks brought us a load of gravel, some picnic tables, shovels and wheel barrows. That’s how we got this park straightened up,” he told us. With Shorty looking on, Sam continued to detail his having been a local body guard for Martin Luther King, Jr. during his time in Birmingham. He explained that while they were setting up for a Barbque in the park for later in the day, the bomb went off in the church across the street. We’ll spare the reader the graphic details of how the bodies of the four little girls were carried across the street and laid out in the park for identification. At the end of Sam’s story he asked if we could help them with money for a meal. For a moment we wondered if this was all a well-orchestrated ploy for sympathy, but decided his story was real; the stark details and the tears on Mr. Owens’ face told us that he was recounting his personal experience of a tragic history that left deep marks in his psyche. Real or not, this encounter pointed to the need to let everyone tell their stories, to listen without judgment and to pass on the spirit of that moment. So we gave them our lunch money and went on our way.

Our next stop on Thursday evening was Mary’s House, a Catholic Worker house in the nearby Ensley neighborhood of Birmingham, home of Jim and Shelley Douglass. As we arrived Shelley was packing food and supplies for the Lenten Retreat they were facilitating over the weekend with Arun Gandhi as the guest speaker. Jim returned later that night, after being delayed by a flat tire. He had been speaking in Kentucky at the Trappist monastery where his friend Thomas Merton had lived. Jim was on tour promoting his new book JFK and the Unspeakable.

During a spaghetti dinner we talked about our mutual journeys surrounded by iconic images of Ceasar Chavez, Dorothy Day, Daniel Berrigan, and St. Frances of Assissi. As we settled in for the night in one of the hospitality rooms, usually filled by family members with loved ones hospitalized nearby, we were startled awake by what we thought was a burglar alarm. It wasn’t until the next morning over coffee that we discovered it had been a tornado warning.
“We don’t pay much attention to those,” Shelley said. “We don’t have anywhere to hide from one anyway.”
As we drove toward the retreat location along roadsides draped with lilac-hued wisteria, we were thinking about how far we have come in the South in the struggle for equality of civil rights. We were shaken by an anti-immigration sign, a stark reminder of how much work remains to be done. The wisteria that softened the harsh urban landscape seemed no more than the thin veil of hypocracy covering the deep racism still eating at America’s core.

 

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