21. December 2012 07:18
by Tammi Sharpe

Fear & Intimidation

21. December 2012 07:18 by Tammi Sharpe | 0 Comments

In 1996 Reverend Fred Shuttlesworth was interviewed as part of the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute Oral History Project.  As leader of the Birmingham Movement, Reverend Shuttlesworth was a prime target of hate groups.  Various excerpts of his interview bring out the climate of fear and intimidation that the Klu Klux Klan created in the 1950s/60s to stop the Civil Rights Movement.  His statements reveal a dysfunctional system of rule of law where the police did not protect all segments of the population and collaborated with hate groups, who along with the police acted with impunity.  Reverend Shuttlesworth’s words further expose his courage and ability to forgive, demonstrating his leadership in keeping the movement alive and maintaining its non-violent character. 

And all of a sudden, BOOM!  The lights went out.  I felt a pressure I’ve never felt before….The wall was demolished and the roof came down…The floor came out from under the bed.  [I smelled] that smoke of dust [of an old] house… mixed with… acid smoke [of dynamite]…..Everyone thought I was dead. …I could hear a [police] officer say ‘I’m so sorry….I know these people and I didn’t think that they would go this far….if I were you, I would get out of town as quick as I can.‘  I said officer….go back and tell your Klan brethren that…the war is on and I’m here for the duration.  ….  I went and sat in back of a car….My six year old daughter curled up in my lap and looked up in my face and said, ‘they can’t kill us daddy, can they?’  I said, no darling, they can’t kill folks.   

[This was Christmas night, December 25, 1956.  The Movement had decided to ride the buses to push for desegregating buses in Birmingham as a response to the Supreme Court’s ruling to end segregated buses in Montgomery following the 13 month bus boycott.]  The next day,…. [I told] people in the movement…we were going to ride the buses….  There was a need to do what we [said] else we would have been dead, the movement I mean.  I could have been alive and yet the movement would have gone….Now… fear is something.  Most of my board members, I had to order them to ride.  I was moved at how fearful they were…..But we must get to the buses today….  If the Klan made their history last night, we’ll make ours for God.

 In 1957, to push for the implementation of the Supreme Court’s ruling on desegregation of schools, I attempted to enroll my children at the all-white Phillips High School.  This was another incident where I was right at death’s doors….. A mob had formed, members of which, really intended to kill me….they… were shouting it out, ‘this kid, this S.O.B. …. [I]t’s an amazing thing how you can submit yourself even under pressure.  People must understand that faith goes much further than we believe and we understand.…. [T]he kicks, curses and slanders, people running into each other trying to do me harm; I was struck again with brass knuckles….they were holding me and pulling me and so forth;  I was just stumbling to the car…One guy…was just winging that [bike] chain; he had struck me already with it once or twice.  And I knew if he would hit me, I wouldn’t make it into the car….I just sort of stumbled into him and…began pulling myself up into the car….My feet were sticking out as the car pulled off.  We went on over to the hospital…..I had my wits.  I was calm….

My mind was on the fact that I had to get to the movement [meeting] that night.  Because I knew with the tensions mounting, the police had been harassing us, and with my being mobbed  I had to at least put in a presence at the movement.  I felt I should …let them know what nonviolence meant to us at that moment….  The doctor examined me…quite extensively….[H]e released me reluctantly…..    

[This incident had been filmed by CBS and the police were also present.]  I always announced and sent the police everything that I was going to do, and I must candidly say to you that the policemen that were there were enough to have prevented what did happen, had they wanted to.  [The attackers were aware of the cameras and the police but they] didn’t care….  They intended to kill….  But I wasn’t fearful….[Y]ou feel a sense of sorrow that it has to happen this way….You must understand I had no hesitation if death had come that day.  I believe the Lord would be ready for me.  I was more sorry for these men.  You can’t understand how otherwise, sensible ordinary citizens could allow themselves to be whipped up into a mob….[Y]ou must understand that we are human beings, we are flesh and there’s something about us that’s above and beyond our flesh, our spirit….All of us could do better….Charles Billups felt the same after the  Klan attacked him in 1958 and branded KKK on his stomach.  He was in the hospital….and I could hear him…saying…’you know what, I feel sorry for these men...for they know not what they are doing.’   

[Fear tactics were also directed at white activists.  In 1957 the white Reverend, Lamar Weaver, joined a protest at the train terminal station.]  My purpose was to sit in the station.  That’s the victory…to actually sit in the white [waiting] room…..Lamar Weaver came in…and sat down with us.  You’ve got to admire the man’s courage….[T]he policemen came in…and said ‘where’s your ticket?’  And he didn’t have one.  So they put him out….Into the mob [that had collected] and the mob set on him. …They tell me they rocked his car and almost tore the canvas off….[H]e barely got away with his life….   James Peck, the white activist, who was one of the original Freedom Riders, was another haunting incident.  First time I saw a human skull was James Peck’s.  They had hit him with an iron pipe and just burst his flesh…..The Freedom Riders came to my place.  They couldn’t go anyplace else.  The police intended to turn Peck over to the Klan….There are some instances here that people don’t know about. 

20. December 2012 10:14
by Tammi Sharpe


20. December 2012 10:14 by Tammi Sharpe | 1 Comments

‘Wait!’  With this one word, in his famed “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” in March 1963, Dr. Martin Luther King captures so much of the historical struggle for racial equality in the United States (US).  As far back as the founding of the US, the framers of the Constitution indirectly made a request to slaves to “wait.”  By incorporating compromises into the Constitution, the framers allowed for the continued practice of slavery notwithstanding the assertion in the Declaration of Independence that “all men are created equal.”  The contradiction of the situation was not lost on the founders.   Thomas Jefferson, a framer and the author of the Declaration of Independence, said:  “Nothing is more certainly written in the book of fate than that these people are to be free.”  He also was not naïve on the gravity of this human right violation:  "The whole commerce between master and slave is a perpetual exercise of the most boisterous passions, the most unremitting despotism on the one part, and degrading submissions on the other.”  His words make me query, if not then and not him, when and whom did he think would resolutely tackle slavery?    

It was not the next generation.  It took a few generations and a war for decisive action to be taken.  President Lincoln, by issuing in 1863 the Emancipation Proclamation, decided de-jure for the nation that securing freedom for some four million people, about 13 per-cent of the population, was vital to the future of this nation.   The adoption of the 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments to the U.S. Constitution by the U.S. Congress further endorsed this view, substantively changing the legal framework of this nation.  Abolitionists, who assiduously labored to rectify the human rights violation that was slavery, saw this as a great leap forward. 

Yet, genuine freedom and full citizenship were still not realized.  Instead, segregation, denial of voting rights, lack of access to justice, and forced labor supplanted slavery.  A freed black was not even physically secure: lynching occurred with impunity and men were arbitrarily arrested.    In response, civil rights advocates replaced the abolitionists in the courts, in the media, in the Federal and State Legislatures, and in the street lobbying for change.  Some successes were realized but not until the mid-1960s were practical measures put in place to protect the human rights articulated in the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments for African Americans.   Dr. King’s “wait” captures the justified frustration and outrage of African Americans being asked for centuries to wait for some of the most basic human rights and dignity as a human being.

“Wait” also illustrates the complexity of upholding human rights.  Dr. King wrote the “Letter from Birmingham Jail” as political and legal structures of segregation were gradually being eradicated but when their termination was far from assured.  He addressed his letter to the white clergy of Birmingham.  This clergy was sympathetic to the cause but desired for protests to be halted to allow for a new local government to be instated.  This can be viewed as a judicious request from their perspective.  New government officials and the structure within which they sat represented  a sort of coup d’état:  a petition calling for a referendum on the type of local government structure had been successfully filed; the referendum had passed and new government officials, who were not rigid segregationist, had been elected.  The clergy wrote to Dr. King with the belief that this new power structure opened up new political and legal opportunities to overturn segregation.  This change of government structure was symbolic of considerable social upheaval within the white community when it came to perceptions of the legitimacy of segregation. 

“Wait,” while inadvertently, also captures the issue of trust and miscommunication between the writer and the receiver and between the larger communities of which they were members.  As indicated by the long history of the struggle for racial equality, asking to further “wait” could be interpreted by those oppressed as insensitivity to the scale of their suffering for centuries.  At the same time, the inability of the nation to rectify the paradox between the founding equality principles of this country and the overt practice of inequality throughout these centuries signifies the importance of the general public’s notions of legitimate laws and practices as well as the enormity of changing perceptions of what is legitimate.  This appears to have been the reality with which the clergy was grappling.  Reportedly, they were too ill at ease over the letter to have responded. 

As history shows, protests in downtown Birmingham in the Spring of 1963 were not halted.  While not immediately, they were successful in overturning segregation.  What we cannot resolutely know is whether passivism could have also worked. 

18. December 2012 14:54
by Laura Anderson

Welcome to The Struggle Continues

18. December 2012 14:54 by Laura Anderson | 0 Comments

The mission of the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute (BCRI) is to promote civil and human rights worldwide through education.  We do this by helping visitors understand the past’s relationship to the present and future developments of human relations in Birmingham, the U.S. and abroad.  For some time we have worked toward launching this blog in fulfillment of our mission.  Today we go live! 

One reason we launch the blog is the fresh perspective of and invigorating presence at BCRI of Human Rights Fellow Tammi Sharpe.  On leave from her regular full-time gig with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, Tammi is spending time at BCRI during 2012 – 2013.  She brings over 18 years of experience in humanitarian, human rights, peacekeeping, peace building and development fields in stable, fragile and failed states to her observations on interpretation of stories of conflict and resolution and/or reconciliation.   We are enriched by Tammi’s unique perspective on our exhibitions and public programs.  She sees our work through the lens of her knowledge of different components of the peace building process: return and reintegration of war-affected populations, reconciliation, and community recovery.  Surely we have much to gain from the questions she raises about both our approach to interpreting history and our efforts to translate the lessons of history for today.  And we definitely appreciate her willingness to oversee The Struggle Continues as we use it to build awareness of and interest in our institutional mission as well as plans for 2013…

 …which brings me to the second reason we are launch the blog today:  In the spring (April 25 – 27, 2013), BCRI will host Lessons of the Birmingham Movement:  A Symposium on Youth, Activism and Human Rights.  This will be an occasion to celebrate, contemplate and commemorate the roles of youth in movements for change and justice around the world.  The year 2013 will mark fifty years since the historic Birmingham Children's Movement and the bombing of the city's Sixteenth Street Baptist Church, events that turned the world's attention to the struggle in Alabama against extremism and toward human rights and equality.   Importantly, many of the speakers from whom participants will hear during the course of the event are veterans of the Birmingham Movement – individuals who filled the streets and jails on behalf of a cause that turned the tide in Birmingham, helped to break the back of segregation, and ultimately benefitted the entire country by contributing to the passage of the Civil Rights Act.  Along with partners such as the Birmingham Rotary Club and the Community Foundation of Greater Birmingham, BCRI aims to shed light on the importance of youth and youth activism to the Birmingham Movement and other movements for change around the world.

Again, welcome.  We look forward to your joining the conversation.


17. December 2012 12:25
by Ashley Makar

The Human-Rights Struggle in Egypt

17. December 2012 12:25 by Ashley Makar | 0 Comments

When my Egyptian dad saw news photos of water cannons unleashed on Cairo protesters in the first days of the January 2011 uprising in Egypt, he said “It’s like what happened in Birmingham.”

Before moving to the Magic City for his dream job in cardiology, all my dad knew about Birmingham were images of civil strife he’d seen in the newspaper: Church bombings; police beatings; water cannons, streaming with enough force to break skin.  When Egyptians from all walks of life came out for a “Million-Man March” against the Mubarak regime in February, my dad said “I’m with the people.”  But he was watching the protest on satellite t.v., from his recliner in Mountain Brook, Alabama.  I’m “for the people,” too.  But I’m watching the violent aftermath of the Egyptian revolution with my coffee cup and cream-of-wheat next to my computer screen, tuned in to Al Jezeera live stream. Can those with full stomachs be good global citizens to those without? 

I’m skeptically hopeful.  Skeptical that we can be more than sympathetic spectators from comfortable suburbs.  Skeptical that what many celebrated as a democratic, nonreligious, popular revolt won’t buckle at the fault lines of class and religion in Egypt: tension between the haves and the have-nots; between Muslims, Christians, and secularists. 

What’s happening in Egypt is exciting. But it’s painful and scary, fragile and fierce. Mubarak’s gone, but his legacy may live on. As Martin Luther King, Jr. would say, the struggle continues.  As the world celebrates International Human Rights Day, Cairo is reeling from the latest round of gunfire in Tahrir Square. Human Rights Watch reports the use of lethal force against protestors demanding an end to military rule.  Now that Egypt is having the first post-Mubarak parliamentary elections, the interim military rulers just announced they will intercede in the constitutional convention to come, to prevent the Islamist parties, who’ve won over 60 percent of the vote so far, from taking over.  This October, security forces violently stopped a protest march, with gunfire, armored vehicles, and tear gas unleashed on Coptic Christians demonstrating for the rights of religious minorities in Egypt.

On International Women’s Day, Egyptian men forcefully dispersed a group of female demonstrators demanding that they be given a voice in building the future of Egypt.  Some of the male counter-protesters, many of whom had demonstrated along with women against the Mubarak regime, shouted them down with misogynistic chants: “Go home, go wash clothes…find a husband…shame on you!” http://www.csmonitor.com/World/Middle-East/2011/0308/In-Egypt-s-Tahrir-Square-women-attacked-at-rally-on-International-Women-s-Day]

What will happen in Egypt could crush our suburban solidarity “with the people” of Egypt.  It could shatter us, if it weren’t for our t.v. and computer screens.  Power entails disparity, and comfort too often yields to complacency. Egypt has disappointed and surprised me. In the January 25 uprising, it wasn’t only the poor rioting for bread; those born with silver spoons in their mouths were also demanding a better life. The young people who organized the first protests—largely through Facebook—are of the newest generation of Egypt’s educated elites.  They’re the guys I would see on their laptops at the Starbucks in Cairo, the guys I assumed didn’t care about the workers eating fava beans out of plastic bags on the street.

An Egyptian-American friend told me some terrible things she’s heard from her colleagues who were providing medical care in Tahrir Square: the “Facebook kids” who started the revolution didn’t know how to stand up to the police, so workers and peasants were protecting them.  Those used to brutality were taking it as usual, but they couldn’t protect the Facebook kids for long. My family friend heard many of the so-called “Mubarak supporters” were drug addicts, so high they could hardly feel the stones people were throwing at them. The police disappeared. Thugs were terrorizing the streets.  Mubarak set the stage to justify his security-first regime, using addicts and prisoners on the front lines.

Being half Egyptian was embarrassing growing up in Alabama, cool in an exoticizing kind of way at my liberal arts college in Connecticut, and disorienting ever since I started spending time in Egypt.  Now, my Egyptian heritage is a blessing and curse.  The week the protests broke out in January 2011, I was at the Egyptian consulate in New York. The line extended out the consulate doors, with New York police there to control the crowd: young men in leather jackets, old men in prayer caps, families, frail ladies with canes, all standing out in the sleet, waiting indefinitely—to get a number, to get on the elevator, to be pressed in the hall where we earlier birds were waiting outside the office door.  That’s an inkling of what it was like to be Egyptian under the Mubarak regime: to be subject to a bureaucracy that’s incompetent and inefficient, that doesn’t value your time, much less your dignity; to be crammed with hundreds of others vying for something you need from a government you can’t trust.  The people outside the consulate were elbowing each other, to get in to the revolving door, some yelling “Allahu akhbar!” That’s a taste of how I imagine the scene last January at Tahrir Square: crowds clamoring in different voices, some saying “Allahu akhbar!” It’s not, as some fear since 9/11, a jihadist outburst.  Muslims say “Allahu akhbar” when they’re excited or distressed.  It’s a reflex, like when Christians say “Jesus Christ!” A colloquial combination of “great God!” and damn!; astonishment and exasperation.

I first learned an Egyptian Christian way of stunned prayer—ya rab irham, Lord have mercy— from my Uncle Latif, in the interfaith chapel of the University of Alabama at Birmingham Medical Center.  We would go there on breaks from sitting in my dad’s hospital room, where he was recovering from a kidney transplant.  Latif would say ya rab irham over and over, in hope and awe: astonished at the distress we were in; hopeful that the Lord would have mercy.  I thought the Egyptian revolution had little to do with us.  We’re a minority of a minority: affluent Egyptian Christians.  I thought we were immune to the Mubarak regime.  I was wrong.  The way Latif died has a lot to do with the protests in the Egyptian streets: The government hasn’t taken care of people’s basic needs. Egypt was not a place to live, or die, with dignity.  Two years ago, Latif was hurrying to catch the tramway in Alexandria. He almost made it, but he fell and cracked his skull on the concrete platform. He lay there hemorrhaging for over an hour. No ambulance came. A passer-by drove him to the emergency room, in a public hospital, where he waited for hours to see a doctor.  My dad says “only the indigent go to government hospitals in Egypt.” The nurses are incompetent; the equipment is inadequate and unsanitary. Latif could afford a private hospital, but he didn’t have a choice that day. He died of a hematoma in his brain.

Adapted from essays that first appeared in The Birmingham News, The New Haven Register and on killingthebuddha.com.