21. August 2014 09:21
by Tammi Sharpe
2 Comments

Another Crossroads?

21. August 2014 09:21 by Tammi Sharpe | 2 Comments

 

My road trips in search of historic sites related to the American Civil War and Civil Rights Movement have taken me in a number of directions.  One of the most confounding was a visit to a “Faithful Slave” Monument built in 1895; its mere existence stunned me to the point that I had to sit down and call home to talk it through.  I just could not imagine how even in 1895, someone could have not seen such a monument as anything but utterly demeaning.  So, what does the fact that this monument still stands in pristine condition say about where we are today in “race relations” in the United States? 

As the incidents in Ferguson, Missouri scream out, we are not in a post-racial America.  We can look at all the remaining gaps that allow for discrimination within the cycle of our justice system from the police to the prisons despite passage of key civil rights legislation.  These gaps merit attention, but I’m not sure that this will lead us to a colorblind justice system without a corresponding close examination of our American psyche. 

In 1895 America was at a crossroads.  Debates over Jim Crow were in their early phases. Freedmen in the 30 years after the Emancipation Proclamation had been regulated to subordinates in American society throughout the country.  Lawful segregation had not yet become the norm, and African-Americans (except Mississippi) exercised their right to vote.  However, within a decade Jim Crow was law in the South, and de-facto segregation took hold in the rest of the country.  Rather than moving in a constructive direction towards freedom for former slaves, and equality and liberty for all Americans, many of our ancestors, including mine, chose to pursue a new form of racial oppression. 

This separation of the races soon became accepted as natural.  As I’m learning from oral history interviewees with those who once opposed integration, segregation structures and practices were a part of social conditioning.  For my first interviewee, Mr. Andrews, in the Oral History Project Reconciling with the Past:  The Legacy of Segregation, the structures of segregation were foremost in his memory.  Drawing on a song in the South Pacific musical, he stated: “You’ve got to be Carefully Taught.” While Mr. Andrews’ experience is his own, he describes a rather typical Southern society that sent a very clear message to its children: “Blacks and whites, we were not supposed to socially mingle.”  He elaborated: “They went to their own restaurants.  We went to ours.  You weren’t suppose to drink from the same water fountain as a black person.  I remember going to the train station in Tuskegee to take the train to Washington.  We had a black waiting room, [or as known then a] ‘colored’ waiting room, and a white waiting room.  You couldn’t sit together in a train station.  I remember going to the doctor’s office.  The blacks waited to see the doctor in a different room than where I sat.”

The memories of Mrs. Evelyn Ray Dauphin, who sat for an interview last month, revealed how insidiously the system secured its existence.  Like Mr. Andrews, as a child she saw the institution of segregation as a matter of fact:   “Other than being glad that I was white instead of black, I don’t have too many memories of racial instance because it wasn’t something that we thought about.  It was just, that was the way things were.”  She makes this last point clear in her remembrance of a childhood playmate, Katy-Lou.  Katy-Lou was the daughter of the black sharecropper family who worked on the Ray farm.

“The little girl, Katy-Lou would come and play.  It was just she and I playing while our mothers worked.  We played in a little shed….  We enjoyed each other’s company, I guess.  I don’t really know if she enjoyed it or not.  But I did.  She was my only playmate… There was no conflict between us…because I was always in charge.  We never argued like our other friends later because, [pause] it wasn’t like let’s play together: you do something like you want to do, and I’ll do something like I want to do.  I got to do what I wanted to do and she just did it.”  

Such memories suggest that segregation practices and white supremacy were like air:  even young children—too young to go to school yet—adapted white supremacy into their play, just as we instinctively know to breathe.    

In listening to these interviewees, I’ve thought back on a warning offered by Lillian Smith in the 1940s.  She described segregation as “spiritual lynching,” and she focused on the harmful effects of segregation on both whites and blacks.  In the interviews, I am finding specific examples of the harm Smith enumerated for whites:  “No white child, under the segregation pattern, can be free of arrogance and hardness of heart, and blindness to human need."* 

Mrs. Dauphin is an example of how profound this “hardness of heart” can be.  Listening to her memories, I felt as if she was still in disbelief, and frustrated with herself for how long it took her to believe in race equality.  As she exclaimed: “Finally, it took that long for me to get to that point.  This was [in the] ‘80s.”  In trying to understand why it took so long, I’ve taken note that she never recounted a traumatic event with a black person.  In fact, her contact with African-Americans was extremely limited.  The most contact she described was as a child with her playmate Katy-Lou, who epitomizes a benign contact.  As she noted early in the interview, “It was just that was the way things were.”  Near the end of the interview she commented, “I don’t believe that I ever hated.”  Yet, it took her decades to overcome the messages of white supremacy that she absorbed in her childhood.    

Mrs. Dauphin intentionally faced her conditioning and notions of white supremacy.  But has a similar effort occurred at a community, state or national level for the American psyche?  Racism was cultivated in the 1600’s to justify the enslavement of fellow humans.  Political support for slavery entailed social conditioning, which taught that the black “race” was innately inferior and it was in their best interest to be enslaved.  This fed notions of the benevolence of slavery. The inherent contradictions of the founding of the United States − freedom, liberty and equality for all men − with slavery and segregation signal how carefully taught Americans have been for centuries.   With all the racial incidents that have preceded Ferguson, can we finally see ourselves at a crossroads?   Are we courageous enough to face a longstanding history of racial oppression by carefully examining remaining remnants of racial social conditioning in American society, such as pristine “Faithful Slave” Monuments?      

 

 

*    Gladney, M. R. How Am I to be Heard?  Letters of Lillian Smith.  Chapel Hill:  University of North Carolina Press, 1993.

 

31. July 2014 14:21
by Tammi Sharpe
1 Comments

Shared History

31. July 2014 14:21 by Tammi Sharpe | 1 Comments

“I wonder what those white people in the photos think now?”

An African American male youth asked this question out loud as he looked at some of the photos hanging in the Civil Rights Room of the Nashville Public Library. In a couple of the photos some white mothers with their young children defiantly stand in protest as African-American mothers lead their children to school. One mother is dressed like Mrs. Cleaver, but with a scowl on her face and her arms crossed. The other mothers are more casual in their dress with rolled up jeans, but have the same angry stare. In another photo, white male youths attack a sit-in demonstrator, who is seated at a lunch counter.

In return I wondered, did he ask that for me to hear? Had he noticed that a white female was standing less than two feet from him? Maybe he spontaneously asked the question. He looked like he was in his early twenties. He has probably experienced racism, but as one of the consequences of the Movement has likely been raised to believe in, and stand-up for his rights.

Despite the frequency of my visits to civil rights sites, I have generally sensed that I’m a trespasser. Once I joined a “Heritage Bus Tour” in Charleston, South Carolina. I was the last one on the bus, and I felt the eyes of the other tourists looking at me as I took my seat. I did not feel hostility, but I did feel as if these other participants were querying “Why is she here?” As is common, I was the only white person.

A part of me wanted to bellow out, “Yes, this is an African-American heritage tour, but ‘your’ history did not happen within a vacuum. This is our American history!” Instead, my imaginary conversation remains internal as the bus pulls out of the Charleston Visitor Center.

Our first site is reportedly a location of past lynchings. “This tree marks the spot where lynchings occurred in Charleston,” reports the guide. The guide’s voice fades as I became absorbed in my own thoughts. I’m just staring at this tree, which sits right in the middle of a residential street not far from the historic downtown area. My internal conversation begins again: “how such horrors could have happened? How could such ordinary citizens, mobs of them no less, just get worked up into such a frenzy brutally killing a man, for the color of his skin?”

The guide’s voice then jarred me back into the present as we approach the Citadel. “This base was built to train a militia of white men in the case of slave insurrections.” The legal foundation of the Citadel dates back to 1822 shortly after the almost successful slave revolt of Denmark Vesey. This, however, is not the only slave revolt to have occurred in Charleston. As we cross a bridge towards James Island, the guide tells us about the Stono River Slave Rebellion which happened almost 100 years earlier in 1739. We then pulled up to the entrance of McLeod Plantation, a quintessential Southern Plantation. For me the setting evokes “Gone with the Wind” and the portrayal of the benevolent slave owner, the faithful slave, and Confederates’ brave fight for States Rights. This image contrasts with those of slave insurrections, which clearly grew out of slaves’ desires for freedom, and the Citadel, which testifies to slave owners’ fear of such desires and their clear intention to squash these with force, brutal force, if necessary.

We gradually make our way back to the historic part of Charleston passing by a number of sites that point to African-Americans’ efforts to educate themselves, and their continued struggle for basic civil and political rights in the United States. What transpired at these sites underlined the work of scholars such as W.E.B. DuBois that white American historians ignored in the first part of the 20th Century. The neglect of these historian led to an understandable need to promote African-American studies, but does this still remain the case? Do we still need to refer to “African-American History”? Is “African-American History,” a misnomer?

DuBois’ works are now readily recognized in traditionally white academic circles. The National Park Service has incorporated the centrality of slavery in the U.S. Civil War into their exhibits alongside a host of museums, books, art, and films that document the injustices of slavery and segregation. I admit this took too long. Much more remains to be acknowledged, and absorbed into the American psyche, to fully dig up the racism that underpinned crimes, and continues to permit racial discrimination and defacto segregation. But doesn’t this require mutual recognition of this past?

While the other tourists have idly chatted with me, no one has asked why I’m here, or what I’m thinking after having traveled back in time with a focus on white Americans’ oppression of African-Americans. What if I had told them my ancestors have a degree of culpability for the crimes committed against their ancestors? What if we began such dialogues? I recently interviewed a white Southern man whose adolescence was seeped in segregation and who after much reflection, described his parents as “wrong, but not evil.” He also put forth that all whites associated with segregation should feel “twangs of guilt.” Like the majority of Southern whites, his parents were not Klan members, nor were mine. Isn’t it time to begin to explore all the complexities of our horrific past? We cannot fully understand, nor possibly reconcile, with this past until we closely examine all the contrasts of our torn, but interwoven history. When we integrate the pieces together our tapestry will more accurately reflect our history.

Maybe at all the other historic sites related to slavery and segregation the African-American tourists were simply too polite to ask me. So, when that young man asked “I wonder what those white people in the photos think now?” I seized the opportunity, turned around and responded, “Me too!”


Tammi Sharpe has recently returned to BCRI as the Human Rights Fellow.  Prior to her return she had been on a four month emergency humanitarian mission to the Central African Republic with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and completed a Alliance for Historical Dialogue and Accountability Fellowship at Columbia University. In partnership with BCRI and Columbia University she is conducting oral history interviews with Americans who opposed integration to enable more comprehensive historical research into the legacy of segregation and to create opportunities for dialogue about a sensitive past.

If you might be interested in participating in this project please contact Ms. Sharpe at tsharpe@bcri.org.  

 

22. April 2013 07:37
by Administrator
6 Comments

Birmingham and the Arab Spring by Rami Khouri

22. April 2013 07:37 by Administrator | 6 Comments

Those who took part (and continue to take part) in the civil rights movement in the USA, especially the seminal Birmingham events of 1963, should appreciate how deeply their sentiments, actions and ethics resonate around the world until this day. Birmingham activism was not just a pivotal historical moment in one location; it marked the birth of a style of non-violent resistance that was born and successfully applied there, but that endures in the hearts of subjugated people across the world. What Birmingham gave to the world turns out to be universal and timeless, transcending religions and cultures. Those school children who marched two-by-two and then stood out in the cold prison yards in the rain, and sang freedom songs, and came back to do it again a few days later....those children who are adults today continue to provide examples for people around the world who also yearn to be free and whole.

I will speak more at the symposium next week in Birmingham about some core parallels I see between the civil rights struggle and the various struggles for rights, dignity and full citizenship by various Arab populations in recent years, in places like Palestine, Lebanon, Sudan, Egypt, Tunisia, Syria and others, some going back to the 1930s and 1950s. We will explore together the mutual lessons of how citizens achieve their rights, and, equally importantly, how those rights are preserved forever under the rule of law, and not eroded over time.

The Arab uprisings today in half a dozen countries are the most recent example of citizens subjugated by their own authorities who respond by resisting oppression and seeking full rights. But the activism of citizens in the rich Gulf state of Kuwait is the one that strikes me as most dramatic in reflecting some of the same attitudes and activism techniques that we saw in Birmingham, including mass non-violent defiance and a willingness to "fill the jails." Kuwait is meaningful because the demonstrators are mostly wealthy, with all their basic needs fully taken care of by the Kuwaiti government—and still they dare the state to arrest them for demanding their rights. I mention the several reasons for grasping the symbolism of Kuwait in the excerpt below from my syndicated column today; the link to the full column is also below.

“A parallel important new political dynamic is the convergence among demonstrators of several opposition groups that had formerly mostly worked on their own, including Islamists, tribalists, nationalists, youth groups, human rights activists, and “bidoun” Kuwaitis who lack full nationality and rights. This kind of multi-constituency, non-violent, mass civil disobedience and open defiance of the emir and the police reminds me of the civil rights protests by schoolchildren in Birmingham, Alabama 50 years ago. There, thousands of youngsters who marched peacefully and sang protest songs in defiance of police orders also took their toothbrushes with them, knowing they would go to jail for at least a night. When the packed jails of Birmingham and adjacent towns eventually could hold no more protesters, and peaceful demonstrators demanding nothing more than their civil rights showed by their behavior that they were prepared to be jailed over and over again, the racist power elite gave up and negotiated an end to the protests by recognizing the citizens' demands.

It is not clear if mass civil disobedience will move Kuwait in a similar direction. What is clear is that we witness in Kuwait an unprecedented situation of anti-autocracy mass civil disobedience by elements of a population that is not poor, hungry or lacking in basic services. Unlike Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Syria, these protesters do not demand the overthrow of the regime, but rather seek constitutional reforms that give citizens their basic rights to participate in decision-making and hold power accountable.

The modern Arab security state has always responded to such movements with massive police action, including imprisonment, exile or even withdrawing nationality (as has happened in several GCC states in the past few years). Tens of thousands of Kuwaitis seem to be challenging this modern Arab legacy, suggesting instead that genuine security and stability must be anchored in that one phenomenon that the Arab world has never seriously tried to create: a satisfied citizenry that shapes state policies, enjoys the protection of the rule of law, and is the source of the legitimacy of public authority."

The full column is at http://www.agenceglobal.com/index.php?show=article&Tid=3015

Indeed, the struggle goes on, across the world, often reflecting and remembering Birmingham.

15. April 2013 06:46
by Tammi Sharpe
4 Comments

Protesting

15. April 2013 06:46 by Tammi Sharpe | 4 Comments

 

Protesting

While pictures provide a glimpse into the experience of the protesters, the below excerpts from individual protesters allow one to gain a closer look at the different experiences.  These are quotes from individuals who were youth in 1963.  Some discuss some of the logistical aspects of protesting providing insights into how the principles of non-violence were upheld.  Others describe in detail their emotions—fears and excitement— and how they overcame intimidation.  Many were arrested and a few describe in vivid detail what if felt like to have a fire hose directed at you.  

Bernard Johnson:  Western Olin High

[W]e left the church and we had to go to our destination by route of alley ways. …After we traveled probably two and a half blocks we were in the middle of the alley way.  The police entered one end of the alley and blocked us off and the fire truck came through the other end.  The fire truck came with the pressure of the fire hoses….There was probably 12 of us.  We were in between buildings in the alley way so there was basically nowhere to run or escape.  The fire hose had so much pressure, at the time I suppose I weighed 130 pounds or so.  The pressure actually lifts you off the ground if you’re close enough to it.  I was thrust from the ground and I imagine I went up at least 5 feet and came down on a wrought iron fence, the fence that had the spears and when I came down I was caught in the crotch on the fence.  At this time the police had turned the dogs loose up the alley and the dog is coming up to where I am on this fence and they have this man eating look, these police dogs.  So, this was in back of a funeral home that this fence was attached and that was the only opening that was throughout this alley.  Fortunate enough I was hung but ripped my pants from the fence and [I] fell on the other side of the fence from where the dog was.  That was how I managed to escape. 

Donald Hauser:  Freshman, Parker High School

[I]t was really nice.  It was exciting for a fourteen year old; it was really something.  We marched all the way down Eight Ave and the crowd got bigger as we went down the Avenue.  We came straight down  and when we got to the back of the church at Sixteenth Street we made a right and then a left and came into the front and it was a humongous crowd already…We went into the church and sat all that day singing.

Rallis Jones Jr.:  Sophomore, Carver High School

[At the church] we had a briefing…We were told what was to be expected.  They explained to us that the march was a non-violent demonstration.  If anybody had any type of weapons at that time to bring them forward…We had pocket knives and stuff like that….[T]hey took up all the pocket knives and they told us that we were probably going to jail….It was exciting but scary, because we knew that the policemen were outside.  Inside the church it was a good feeling, because we felt safe….It was good to be participating.  I felt a part of the Movement.  I was sort of caught up in it.  Especially when hearing all these leaders speak to us, motivating us and telling us how we didn’t have to worry about anything.

We were assigned different groups and some of us were given signs and we had a leader leading us toward town…..We were walking down on the sidewalk by the park.  As a matter of fact, we didn’t get far before we were arrested.  We left the church and started walking toward the park, the paddy wagons pulled up and the policemen were there.     

John Henry Lee:  Freshman, Immaculata High School

I remember people like Andy Young and James Bevill and so forth…They told us how we were to march and what to respond.  They anticipated things that the police would do.  We were instructed “When you are holding your signs and everything, they’ll come and try to scare you and snatch your sign and try to intimidate you.  So you just let it go and defeat that purpose."  They anticipated that and some other things about how we were supposed to orderly proceed in the march. 

We left that church and they [the police] didn’t anticipate us coming from that direction.  This was a new tactic, I guess.  So we made a pretty good distance because they didn’t know where we were coming from.  People were coming from different directions….At some point they [the police] discovered that we were coming from this way and then they came and stopped our line and lined us up in front of some store and started to arrest my group.  

Floretta Scruggs Tyson:  Sophomore, Ullman High School

I was kind of nervous…because I really didn’t think I was going to jail but I was getting prepared to [be arrested]….[I]n the Movement they were teaching us the non-violent act and what to do in case we went to jail….I took things out of the house like underwear, toothbrush, toothpaste in case I went to jail…..So my friends and I went on to the church and when we got there it was a bunch of other people there and we had already been assigned to what we were going to do.  So we got in our little groups…they were still teaching us, telling us what to do in case something should happen.  So we listened and then it was time to march.  Well, we got maybe about a half a block from the church and we were arrested.  There were a lot of paddy wagons out. 

Miriam McClendon:  Sophomore,  Wenonah High School

 

When we go to Kelly Ingram Park we were split up in different groups and each group had an assigned area.  My group’s assigned area was the Atlantic Mills Thrift Store…..[At the store] [w]e had out our little signs and we formed our little circle and we started marching and singing…..[The store manager] immediately called the police….[and we were all arrested.] 

Aldridge Willis:  Junior,  Fairfield High School

We had come to the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church to get formal instructions as to how to conduct ourselves.  From listening to people we were not to fight back or strike back but we were to offer ourselves up to prayer and for song services…..

 

I witnessed these fire hoses.  They were so powerful and when they turned them up into the trees those fire hoses would just cut limbs like an invisible hand.  They just cut limbs, knocked down trees like an invisible hand. ….  [Then someone threw a bottle] at the fireman that was spraying the water upon the demonstrators and hit the fireman upon the head.  Then the fireman turned the hoses on us…we were cut down.  My body was picked up…because of the force of the water my legs were knocked out from underneath me.  I fell to the ground…  [P]eople [were] running and screaming and so forth.   

Willie Eatman:  Parker High School

When we got to the church the first thing they ask you is to register because your name needs to be on a register.  If you did go to jail or get hurt, that way you can be accounted for.  I tell the people that I was with to go ahead and sign in and once we get inside the church then they’d have a group of people over here for carrying signs, and a group of people for marching, a group of people going to different parts of the city for different things.  For instance, one day they gave me a sign to go down to the city hall, me and another guy.  They didn’t want but two people.…

So we had to take a sign and put it up on our car and walk down like there was nothing going on even though the police was sitting out in front of city hall and they kept on looking at us.  And one of them asked.  ‘What do y’all niggers think you’re doing?’  We didn’t say anything, we just kept on walking real slow in front of the building.  Then another man said, ‘They’re lost. Those niggers don’t know what’s going on.’  About the time we got middle ways to the steps…I thought they were going to shoot me…because they reached for their guns.  I got the sign out and I ran off to the City Hall shouting “We Shall Overcome, We Shall Overcome….” They grabbed me, threw me down and carried me back…and put me in a cell for a minute.  Then they said ‘He’s underage.’  So they couldn’t hold me.  They told me Nigger, you go home, you go home.  I mean go home. We catch you again.  We gonna lock you up.’  So I turned around and walked right back down to the church and grabbed another sign.    

We’d leave the church, we’d line up in front of the church and we’d go down Sixth Avenue and then down Nineteenth Street.  Then we’d turn and come back down Fourth Avenue….

26. March 2013 07:57
by Tammi Sharpe
5 Comments

Teachers and Students

26. March 2013 07:57 by Tammi Sharpe | 5 Comments

Students and teachers faced a number of dilemmas over youth engagement in the Birmingham Civil Rights Movement. Students risked going to jail, being exposed to possible violence, and possible expulsion from school. At the same time, teachers and other school officials were torn about students’ participation and had been ordered by the local school board to prevent student participation. Consequently, some of them put their own jobs on the line. As teachers’ and students’ statements show, each school differed in its approach to dealing with the “Children’s Crusade.” The selected quotes below provide a sense of the variety of views and scenarios. These quotes also give a feel for the energy that was mobilizing youth in May 1963. The map is meant to provider readers with a sense of the location of the school in reference to the protest location.

  

View Birmingham in a larger map

Yellow pushpin - Parker High School

Red balloon - location of the protests

Purple pushpin - Wenonah High School

Green pushpin - Carver High School

Turquoise pushpin - Ullman High School

Pink pushpin - Westfield High School

Red pushpin - Fairfield High School

Blue balloon - Immaculata High School

Yellow balloon - Western Olin High School 

Milton Stollenwerck:  Teacher

At the very beginning I thought that it [the movement] was using the children as pawns.  I came to realize that in numbers there is strength.  I never shall forget there was a woman in Collegeville who was up around the hood and she had 8 or 9 children, all of them went to Carver High School.  One morning after the mass meeting A. D. King, Martin’s brother, came to Carver High School, and at that time we had chain linked fences around the building, but the gates were not locked.  I don’t know how they came to that decision but the students were in the halls talking about lets go, lets go.  I wanted to know what was going on so I went up around the office and the principal stepped out of his office and he said:  I’ll not try to stop you, if you’re going go ahead, if you’re not going let’s go into the classes and have school.  He turned around and went back in. 

A.D. King…something …precluded him [from] coming on the grounds.  I think the law said he couldn’t come on the grounds….Across the street, he stood there and raised his arms and said: ‘Y’all come.”  And they all followed out there…..When those students left the grounds of Carver High School they left three [students] in the school…Everybody left…we had three students.  And these were a preacher’s children.   

Edward Thompson:  Teacher

 

I was deeply in sympathy with what was going on….[W]e just told them [the students], if they go, just keep going.  Don’t tear the school up.  Now when the fellows [who were recruiting] would come in….we stopped them at the door.  And if the kids wanted to go nobody stopped them; the door [was] opened and the gate [was] opened and you go on across that street…..I respected their right to demonstrate, even though I could lose my job.  

Carl Grace:  Freshman Fairfield High School

I was sitting in music class…we began to hear someone down the hall saying , “let’s go.”….Then all of the sudden it sounded like horses, you could hear the footsteps coming down the hall saying, “let’s go.”  It was getting closer and closer and the closer it got the footsteps were heavier.  Someone got to our door and opened up the music class door and said, “let’s go.”  We all got up, Ms. Major [the teacher], she stood in the door and tried to stop us…we all just hit the hallway and we went to the next door and we began to be the ones that opened the door, “let’s go.”  The kids just rushed on out.  Many teachers tried to stop us and many teachers were for us going.

We began to march from Fairfield High School went up to the west side of Miles College and over to Carline Road to Bessemer Road.    

Emily Thomas Ellis:  Parker High School

[W]e decided that we would just go into school that morning.  And we went in and stayed about a half hour.  After we had been in there somebody said, ‘Hey it’s time to go.’….[A]ll of the students just stood up, they slammed their books down and they walked out.

Rallis Jones Jr.:  Sophomore Carver High School

In 1963 some of the civil rights leaders came to our school.  They weren’t on the campus; they were across the street from the campus.  They were out recruiting the students to come and join in on the demonstrations….It was really sort of a tough decision.  We were all standing there and we couldn’t decide what to do because the leaders were telling us to come and the teachers were telling us if we crossed the street that we couldn’t come back to school.  I remember some students saying, ‘No, don’t go across the street,’ and some saying ‘Yeah, let’s go.’  So I think what finally happened, somebody took the initiative to go across the street.  And once one person went across, a bunch of us followed. 

Robert Simpson:  Junior at Ullman High School

[Members of the Movement] were allowed to come to the schools.  They were ostracized.   All of the teachers at that time were afraid for their jobs.  They had been told that if they got involved that they would not work for the Birmingham Public School.  I could remember during the time when the demonstrations got hot, they locked the doors at Ullman and told us we could not go downtown.  But, it was a message that didn’t get through to us.  They locked the gates, but we tore them down.  We pulled the fence loose and held the fence back and everybody by the hundreds came out.  It was just no stopping us.  [A] few kids stayed in school, but the majority…went downtown. 

Emily Thomas Ellis:  Parker High School

[W]e decided that we would just go into school that morning.  And we went in and stayed about a half hour.  After we had been in there somebody said, ‘Hey it’s time to go.’….[A]ll of the students just stood up, they slammed their books down and they walked out. 

Miriam McClendon:  Sophomore at Wenonah High School

[T]here were a number of us [at my school] who already were involved in the Movement again through the mass meetings….There were a number of us who just got up, walked out of class and we walked from Wenonah High School to downtown Birmingham [which was about 7 or 8 mile walk]…We walked and we sang and changed and, in retrospect, I think about it now and if I were to really stop and think about it, I say Wow, that’s a long way.  But, back then we were young.   

Aldridge Willis:  Junior in Fairfield High School

[The] Teachers did not encourage us, but they did not restrain us that much…It was like a benign look.   Yes, you go ahead and do it, I’m not telling you to do it but just…you know what to do.  That sort of encouragement and discouragement at the same time.  They didn’t get out and try to lead us toward any demonstrations but I don’t think they turned our names in or tried to do some punitive things to us if we participated.  

My mother being a school teacher, I was aware…[that] a letter had circulated from Fairfield Board of Education that if any teacher, teachers’ husbands or wives, or teachers’ children got caught in the demonstrations that they were going to be terminated.  

Deborah Hill: Student

I remember coming back to school [after attending a mass meeting at which Dr. King spoke] telling all of my friends, who had not attended the meeting, what Dr. King had told us.  And how we as students could become involved in this movement…. [My friends] were equally as excited as I was….I was not telling my parents a lot about it….parents had a lot of fear about our involvement.  They equally wanted to see change take place but that was a time of fear within this city because there were many things that were happening…People were very frightened about taking chances [and] about becoming involved.

[We went to the protests from school.]  There were hundreds of us…there was no school [as] there weren’t enough students left in the classroom…We were getting another education.  We were getting a valuable education in life… [There was resistance from teachers and the principal to our participation] but we had made up [our]mind about what we were going to do.  I think it was passive resistance in the sense that they did not encourage [us] but they also did not discourage [us].  They knew this that was something that was happening for all of us.  It was not just for my benefit or for their benefit but this was for the benefit of future generations. [We walked several miles to join the protests.  We were] walking with friends and singing and walking in groups.  [The miles were] just simply numbers.  You never think in terms of the miles.  You never think in terms of your feet hurting.  You are singing, you are so inspired, you are so upbeat, you are so uplifted, you have such a strong belief in what you are doing and what you are about to do.  All of these other ramifications were in the far distance about what would actually happen.  

Willie Eatman: Student Parker High School

R. E. Johnson, was the principal at the time at Parker. I went and asked him, would it be okay for me to go out and demonstrate? He said no and he just kept saying, no, no , no. [….] So when things started getting a little deeper up here then I asked him again. So he told me one day after I asked him so many times, I said would it be okay for me to leave and go demonstrate? He said, ‘no, you cannot go, you cannot go.’ He pointed at the door and he said, ‘no, you cannot go.’ I looked at him and smiled and he said, ‘you cannot go.’ And I left out the door.

I left that day by myself…then the next day. I always came to school, and the next day…I was telling some more kids. I said, listen he’s not going to say anything just come on. So a group of us walked to the door, he was standing up at the door with his hands on his hips. He didn’t say anything, he said, ‘where do y’all think you’re going?’ We said, we’re going to demonstrate. He said, ‘y’all can’t go’, and pointed at the door like that. We eased on out the door.

[Then there was the day when a lot of students left Parker] that day was something like a D-day. Everyone just felt like it was real tight. That morning when you first got to school and everyone was sitting out there and they couldn’t concentrate knowing what’s going on downtown about these dogs biting people and firemen had put water on people and stuff like that. A lot of them was afraid of going down there. The next thing I know everyone started coming all out of the windows and stuff.

[When we returned to school I knew I would not be expelled as dictated by the city ordinance.] We had a bit meeting in out auditorium. We sat down and talked about the situation. He [a school authority] said that he saw a lot of violence going on down there [downtown area] and he was telling us that we really shouldn’t be down there because of the violence.

18. March 2013 08:27
by Tammi Sharpe
1 Comments

Mass Meetings

18. March 2013 08:27 by Tammi Sharpe | 1 Comments

Please click here to hear an audio taping of the Mass Meeting held immediately after the Birmingham Police began using dogs and firehoses to quell the protests.  Dr. Martin Luther King is the main speaker: Audio of Mass Meeting with MLK

Mass meetings were at the crux of the Birmingham Civil Rights Movement.  This is where participants learned about the objectives of the Movement, their rights, the principles of non-violence, and logistical matters related to the protests.  Held in churches, the meetings were also of a spiritual nature with lots of singing.  To gain a better sense of the meetings, this week we share the memories of the youths who participated in the mass meetings.  

Bernard Johnson:  Western Olin High

As a young person, I thought that the speeches were too long and I had more interest in the young ladies….We took it for granted if Rev. King or someone of that stature was at one of the meetings and made a speech….I would always leave with a certain level of inspiration.

Emily Thomas Ellis:  Parker High School

[The mass meetings were] spiritual and rewarding….They sang freedom songs. 

Miriam McClendon:  Sophomore at Wenonah High School

A lot of singing and rally.  They discussed the critical issues, the same issues that were being discussed in the larger mass meetings with the adults, but they tailored it to fit the temperament of the student. 

John Henry Lee:  Freshman Immaculata High School

[A mass meeting] was like church.  It was a lot of emotion, but you used the Bible to sort of explain what was happening or you use that type of emotion to translate it into the political thing to advance the human rights effort.  

Deborah Hill:  Student

I had the opportunity of meeting and seeing Dr. Martin Luther King….At the meeting he explained to the young people, the part that we would play in the movement.  I remember the discussions being centered on non-violence.  The non-violence was something that was strongly emphasized and strongly stressed.  And you know when you’re young, you have so much energy and that energy has to be redirected.  We didn’t think that we could all be as non-violent as Dr. King had wanted us to be but this was something that was taught and told to us and given reasons as to why if we were going to be effective why the non-violent way would be the most effective way to be.  

Eloise Staples:  Student Freshman Parker High School

The moment was so strong and intense and the people were so…and I want to say fierce from a standpoint of anger but they were so strong…it was contagious.  Even if you went with the intent of fooling around, you listened…it was the euphoria I guess. …. [I]t made us stop and think.  We weren’t into reading newspapers and watching the news and that kind of thing but it made you wonder, what’s really going on? 

Robert Simpson:  Junior Ullman High School

It was like a fire….[like] that song… ‘Ain’t going to let nobody turn me around.’  All those things that we sang about, we believed…..Dr. King did stress the non-violent part. He explained…about Ghandi.

Floretta Scruggs Tyson:  Sophomore in Ullman High School

[Mass meetings] were like going to church.  

 

 

11. March 2013 09:26
by Tammi Sharpe
4 Comments

Motivation and Becoming Socially Conscious

11. March 2013 09:26 by Tammi Sharpe | 4 Comments

A range of motivations drove youth to join the Birmingham Civil Rights Movement in 1963.  Their participation was a contentious issue, which even Malcolm X commented was ill advised.  However, their participation was instrumental to the success of the Civil Rights Movement.  The police’s mistreatment of youth—unleashing of dogs, use of fire hoses and detention— shocked the nation and the world, bringing needed attention to the injustices of segregation.  Through the participation of youth, the Birmingham Civil Rights Movement succeeded in fulfilling a tenant of Gandhi’s strategy, “fill the jails.”  Like adults children as young as eight years old were detained, overwhelming the capacity of the jails and the legal system.   

The protests were also of direct relevance to youth’s lives and their future.  Dorothy Cotton, former Director of the Citizenship Education Program of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference defended youth’s participation in the protests as follows:  “People toss that phrase [use of children] around….I didn’t think of it that way and I don’t [know] anyone who has really thought about the movement…in a real analytical or understanding way, to think of that in a pejorative kind of negative way…. [P]eople got caught up in the dynamics and actually the spirit of it, and also the justness of the cause and understood and felt that something is happening here and I am going to miss out on something important if I don’t get involved…. It was exciting to see children get turned on to this notion that we have a democracy and it is not right that a segment of the population should be excluded from the mainstream of life. 

 

This week we look at their motivations, which in turn reveal how and when the Birmingham youth in the 1960s became socially conscious of their world and their role within it. 

Robert Simpson:  Junior at Ullman High School

We didn’t know as far as what is freedom or voting or things like that.  [Members of the movement] would come and talk to us.  Most parents would tell their children, ‘Get in the house, you don’t need to hear this.’  But, with us being young kids, naturally, we were interested, curious anyway.  So, what we started doing was just slipping off at night, going over to the church where these meetings were going on and people were talking to us, telling about the things that we were entitled to, which we had no idea about until they started talking to us.  These younger kids were more receptive to hearing what these people had to say than the older people, in the beginning.  My mother was one of those who very definitely was not or had no interesting in begin part of the Movement at that time….But, then, after she saw that…I was caught up in it…, and she couldn’t stop me.  Before I knew it, she was right there with me. 

It was like a fever that swept through Birmingham with the younger people and a lot of the older people too.  We all got caught up in this Movement.  We knew what we had been facing and we knew…what we could not do.  My aunt, I can remember she wanted to vote.  She was like in her 50s and she couldn’t vote.  She would go down…to try to take that literacy test…but they would always come up with some old trick question or something to keep her from registering to vote.  It was very few Blacks who got a chance to vote….Wherein if it was a White person…all they…did was sign on the dotted line.  But, it was all just a Black and White thing.  And, like I said, these things had been going on, but the Movement came along….[and provided the needed] leadership.  I think Dr. King coming along when he did was the greatest thing that ever happened to America.  It helped to erase a lot of things that had been going on since slavery.  

Deborah Hill:  High School Senior

As a young child I remember both my parents having to take a test to vote.  I remember them discussing having to pay poll taxes and it was like I felt that it was so unfair that you had to take a test as a citizen of this country in order to have the right to vote; this was something that I refused that I would have to do.  And when the movement came along about civil rights and equal rights for all Americans,  I felt that this was something that I was going to be a part of.  This was just another aspect in my life…: bringing about positive change within the Birmingham system.   

Eloise Staples: Student Freshman at Parker High School

I couldn’t understand why when we walked from the car downtown if we wanted a Krystal hamburger we had to stand outside the window and order a 10 cent hamburger…there were seats inside. I couldn’t understand, it didn’t matter that it was….I just couldn’t understand it. My dime was as good as his dime. Why couldn’t I just go inside and purchase what I wanted?.... [Y]ou knew your place so to speak… [S]o it really didn’t bother you until the subconscious became the conscious as far as why not and I started asking questions.

Bernard Johnson:  Western Olin High

[I]n recent times I have heard various opinions about [children being mislead by adults] and the opinions range from the movement was at a stall and the scheme was to bring in children and play off the sympathy of the children being abused.  I only know of a couple of incidents where the children were around.  Everyone I was around we were pretty much high school age….I didn’t consider myself as being a child…We had a cause and if the understanding of that cause was truly understood then you would not hear one of the people that partake with the situation have any regrets about the situation….[Y]ou would leave… [from a demonstration] with that hope and that hope would be something similar to a willingness to march to hell for. 

Miriam McClendon:  Sophomore at Wenonah High School

My mother went to a mass meeting and I wanted to go and she took me.  And sitting in the audience and listening to Dr. King touched on that mysterious “something” inside me and I knew that they were addressing the race question….I started going to the youth meeting and just became totally engrossed.  

8. March 2013 09:26
by Tammi Sharpe
5 Comments

Young Female Foot Soldiers of the Civil Rights Movement

8. March 2013 09:26 by Tammi Sharpe | 5 Comments

Youth played a critical role in the Birmingham Civil Rights Movement.  On international women’s day we’d like to highlight the memories of some of the young female foot soldiers who participated in mass meetings and protests. 

Eloise Staples:  Freshman at Parker High School

The moment was so strong and intense and the people were so… I want to say fierce from a standpoint of anger but they were so strong…it was contagious.  Even if you went with the intent of fooling around you listened…it was the euphoria I guess. …. [I]t made us stop and think.  We weren’t into reading newspapers and watching the news and that kind of thing but it made you wonder, what’s really going on? 

Danella Jones Bryant:  Parker High School 16 years old

I was spell bound….The mass meetings were where people got together and they talked about getting their rights.  Being able to do the things that they couldn’t do in a non-violent way.  And that really impressed me because I wasn’t into violence.

Audrey Hendricks:  8 years old

[T]he meetings themselves, from what I can remember, was energy.  It was very organized.  I remember times when they would say, ‘If we are going to march tomorrow, if you have any weapons come down and put them on the table.’  And there would be people to come down and put knives on the table and those kinds of things…..[T]here was not any difference in the meetings [for the children versus those for the adults.]  The same kind of thing…there was singing, there was strategizing.  They talked about what would happen if you are going to march.  

Floretta Scruggs Tyson:  Sophomore at Ullman High School

[The day of the protest] I was kind of nervous…because I really didn’t think I was going to jail but I was getting prepared to [be arrested]….[I]n the Movement they were teaching us the non-violent act and what to do in case we went to jail….I took things out of the house like underwear, toothbrush, toothpaste in case I went to jail…..So my friends and I went on to the church and when we got there it was a bunch of other people there and we had already been assigned to what we were going to do.  So we got in our little groups…they were still teaching us, telling us what to do in case something should happen.  So we listened and then it was time to march.  Well, we got maybe about a half a block from the church and we were arrested.  There were a lot of paddy wagons out. 

[The detention] was horrible.  I never want to experience it again….[I]t was terrifying because we were in a real jail where they had real criminals….[we were mixed in with these other prisoners.]  I can really remember the prostitutes…they were really rowdy….they were just cursing and just carrying on and when they were talking they were like right beside our bunk and every time they said something…we were nervous.  (She detained for nine days.)

Emily Thomas Ellis:  Parker High School  (With hundreds of students she marched from the School to the Sixteenth Baptist Church - @2 miles)

Over five or six hundred [students marched from Parker High School to Sixteenth Street Baptist Church.  At the church]  I was so shocked because I had never seen Dr. Martin Luther King before and he was in the pulpit….He said that we were tired of being pushed around.  Tired of riding in the back of the bus.  Tired of not being able to eat at the lunch counters….. Tired of drinking out of the water fountain that says “colored only.”

Miriam McClendon:  Sophomore at Wenonah High School

When we got to Kelly Ingram Park we were split up in different groups and each group had an assigned area.  My group’s assigned area was the Atlantic Mills Thrift Store…..[At the store] [w]e had out our little signs and we formed our little circle and we started marching and singing…..[The store manager] immediately called the police….[and we were all arrested.]

Deborah Hill – High school senior

[Upon arriving downtown] I remember coming into this area near this park being met by fierce dogs and police barricades.  I think about that often, because you know when you think about how policemen are trained to deal in crowds today.  That was unheard of in the ‘60s… There was fear on both sides…..I have always been of the personal opinion that the police helped to exacerbate the level of the temperature of the crowd…..[The police] were all around the park.  You had fire hoses that were aimed at you and those were very forceful.  I mean extremely forceful hoses and the hoses were turned loose on people as well as the dogs….[I]f you came across a certain line, they would turn those dogs on you and those dogs were very vicious.  I remember seeing the gnashing of [the] teeth of the dogs.

They did unleash the water hoses on us.  I remember the power was so powerful from the hose the force was just so overpowering it tore my dress.  We had to jump into a car and I remember the force was so powerful that the car was just rocking from side to side.  We honestly felt that we were going to die.  I had never encountered a force so strong in my life.  I had no idea that the force of water could be so powerful and yes we thought that we were going to die, that we would never see our parents again.  I remember one of the young ladies panicking in the car and she jumped up.  Our thing was that if we held our heads down and they didn’t see us, they would change the direction of the hose from us to someone else and we would be able to get out of the car and eventually get away.  But you know she panicked and we probably had to slap her back to reality to get her back.  But she just knew she was going to die and you never know what you’re going to do until you are faced in a situation such as that.  For many, many years I had kept that in the recesses of my own mind because it was such dangerous times.  I believe that was the closest time I really came to [death.]    

7. March 2013 14:52
by Tammi Sharpe
0 Comments

Connecting with the Past

7. March 2013 14:52 by Tammi Sharpe | 0 Comments

It is one of those times when I get to say “I was there” at the Commemoration of Bloody Sunday.  What was the value of this day?  Are we unconstructively dredging up racist history as queried in an al.com article*?  I’d say no.  

For me it was an opportunity to reflect on the Civil Rights Movement:  an extraordinary time in American history when masses, hundreds of thousands of people came together to non-violently demonstrate for their rights and their resolve stayed firm for a decade.  Imagine a decade of continuous protesting.  And, as Vice President Biden stated, those demonstrators had “courage.”  This is not an inflated compliment.  We, all Americans—African-American, White, Hispanic, Asian, Native American, Arab-American—should reflect on the violent resistance these protesters faced down in order to obtain one of the most fundamental right of a democracy, the right to vote.  Their battle for this right alongside other basic civil and human rights—security, protection of the law, freedom of expression, freedom of movement--and simple basic human dignity—to enter through the front of the bus, to use a public bathroom, to share a public water fountain with other citizens—was democracy in action. 

In 1958 Reverend Shuttlesworth stated “Democracy is on trial.”  This was in the early years of the Civil Rights Movement but the trial had started way before the 1950s.  The trial began with the founding of this country when only white male property owners had the right to vote.  This trial was on-going during the U.S. Civil War when some 4 million people, the majority of which had been born in the U.S., were enslaved.  This trial could be seen during World War II when the U.S. fought against the idea of an Aryan supreme race while white supremacy flourished throughout the U.S.   This trial continues today.  As Attorney General Holder stated “progress has indeed been made… [but] let us challenge each other to aim higher.”  Herein lies the importance of recalling this history.  We remain citizens in a democracy and as such we need to be aware of our rights and we need to remain vigilant on ensuring these rights are upheld.  This is our civic duty. 

Democratic structures are in place, but as witnessed in the past and today these structures by themselves do not uphold our rights.  We must engage.  All the speakers took note of the on-going Supreme Court’s review of the Voting Rights Act (VRA).  Throughout the afternoon protestors repeated the chant “Section 5 must stay alive.”  The Senior Counsel for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), Debo Agegbile, who argued against the constitutional challenge to the VRA before the Supreme Court, strongly argued that “the right to vote cannot be abridged.”  Al Sharpton remarked that today is “not a commemoration.  This is a continuation.”

Thus, I go back to the question of the al.com article about “dredging up” a racist past and one that I have heard before.  I do believe it is necessary.  It is too easy to see and only understand what directly affects us.  One can see this in the history of the Civil Rights Movement.  Not all whites were white supremacist.  Some joined the struggle, but many stood on the sidelines and in doing so they empowered the white supremacists.  Remembering the Civil Rights Movement should remind us of our civic responsibilities of knowing our rights, and speaking out for our rights as well as those of all Americans.  If more of our ancestors had truly reflected and acted on the injustices of segregation and slavery, maybe it would not have taken us centuries to correct these wrongs.  Lets not go backwards. 

 

* http://blog.al.com/montgomery/2013/03/selmas_bloody_sunday_annual_co.html  

6. March 2013 10:47
by Tammi Sharpe
4 Comments

“A Voteless People is a Hopeless People”

6. March 2013 10:47 by Tammi Sharpe | 4 Comments

During the course of the 20th century, Alabama native W.C. Patton (1910-1997) became a legendary figure.  A civil rights giant long identified with the struggle for voting rights in the United States (U.S.), Patton was credited with registering over 1.5 million voters in his lifetime. 

Patton’s activism began when he was a student at Alabama State College in Montgomery.  He joined the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) in 1932 remaining active as a volunteer throughout the Great Depression and World War II.  His activism contributed to the local branch of NAACP being recognized as the “most militant and outstanding” branch in the country. 

In 1947 Patton became the President of the Alabama State Conference of Branches of NAACP.  Throughout his career, Patton directed multiple voter registration efforts for NAACP.  An early campaign slogan used to encourage participation in the political process was “A Voteless People is a Hopeless People.”  He was known for saying “My job was to incite people to become registered voters.”  This entailed keeping the books open till midnight and going into poolrooms. 

Patton also steered the organization’s efforts to overturn discriminatory voting legislation, namely the Boswell Amendment, which was passed in 1946.  This Amendment required would-be voters to “…understand and explain any article of the Constitution of the United States…”  Patton raised $15,000 for “Operation Suffrage” to challenge this Amendment in court.  In 1949 in the case of Davis v. Schell, the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Alabama declared the Boswell Amendment unconstitutional.  The lawsuit, filed by the Mobile Voters’ and Veterans’ League, was part of “Operation Suffrage” headed by Patton. 

The defeat of the Boswell Amendment, however, did not halt efforts to impede African-Americans from voting.  In 1951 members of the Alabama Legislature passed the Bonner Amendment, which required that potential voters be deemed “of good moral character” by local boards of registrars.  In 1957 the Alabama Legislature redistricted Macon County as a means to exclude all but a handful of African-American voters from city elections.  In response to the redistricting NAACP filed Gomillion v. Lightfoot on which, in 1960, the U.S. Supreme Court decided that this redistricting violated the Fifteenth Amendment.

As if he foresaw the future struggle for voting rights in Alabama-including the State Government’s 1956 decision to ban the NAACP from operating-Patton organized the Alabama State Coordinating Association for Registration and Voting in 1952.  Its office was on the 9th floor of Birmingham’s Masonic Temple Building; a photo of the office’s door is found above.  The NAACP was not re-permitted to incorporate and operate in Alabama again till 1964.  

When Patton retired from the NAACP in 1979, he shifted full time focus to his home state and city.  Holding the reins of dozens of cooperating grassroots organizations, he coordinated voter registration campaigns, economic development initiatives, and community relations efforts.  He worked until his passing in Birmingham in 1997. 

Patton’s voting rights crusade was rooted in hope.  He believed in the promise of participatory democracy.  He acted with courage, undaunted by the murder of fellow activists*.  He toiled to help Americans connect voting with education, housing, healthcare and economic opportunity.  The struggle for voting rights continues today, but we can take hope in the story of W.C. Patton, a foot soldier for justice. 

* 1951 Harry T. Moore, President of the Florida Conference of Branches of the NAACP and his wife Harriette Moore; 1956 Reverend George Lee, President of the Belzoni Mississippi Chapter of the NAACP; 1961 Herbert Lee, voter registration activist in Mississippi; 1963 Medgar Evers NAACP leader in Mississippi; 1964 Louis Allen, James Chaney, Michael Schwerner and Andrew Goodman, voter registration activists in Mississippi; 1965 Jimmie Lee Jackson and Viola Liuzzo, voter registration activists in Alabama; and 1966 Vernon Dahmer, voter registration activist in Mississippi.