I can either assume two things. None of my blog readers are living right or none of you took my suggestion to beseech God on my behalf for a cold front to descend upon the Southeast region of the United States. The official high on Thursday was 98 F. The car said it was 100 yesterday (the newspaper said 96), either way it was too hot. Let me catch you up on a bit.
While in Birmingham this week (Kontan’s old stomping grounds), I took a couple hours to go through the Civil Rights Institute. It’s located across the road from 16th Street Baptist Church, the site of the September 1863 firebombing that killed four girls. Upon entering the museum, they have you watch a video. Sitting in front of me was a young African-American boy about eight. When they showed a picture of two men being lynched, he gasped. I was ashamed and wondered what he was thinking as he watched the video about his ancestor’s struggles to claim their basic rights. Why is it that the white youth in the picture of the lynching, teenagers who appear as if they might be on a date, smile and look like they are enjoying themselves? I remember a North Carolina history book from the fifth or sixth grade showing a lynching in Moore County (my home county). The picture made me ashamed and I didn’t want anyone to know that I was from there and wondered if any of my great-grandparents were involved. When the video concluded, we were ushered back into a world of fear and violence and segregation.
In the 1920s, President Warren Harding spoke in Birmingham at the 50th anniversary of the city’s founding. He encouraged the city fathers to give the blacks the vote, contending that a democracy cannot exist without all having the right to vote. The city didn’t listen to the President, passing even stronger segregation laws in the 40s. Yet, within the city’s black neighborhoods, a thriving community existed. In 1948, at the age of 16, Willie Mays began his major league career with the Birmingham Black Barons in the Negro Leagues. The city was a frequent stop of black entertainers as they toured the South on the Chitlin’ Circuit and featured such greats as Cab Calloway (the Institute had a 1933 videotape of Calloway performing the same song he sang in the movie, The Blues Brothers).
In the early 60s, Birmingham became a center of struggle for African-Americans. The Reverend Fred Shuttlesworth and other clergy lead the fight. They were joined by others across the south, including the Doctor Martin Luther King Jr., who wrote his famous “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” from the city. The Institute has recreated King’s cell with its actual iron door. Some within the white community in Birmingham felt threatened and struck back. The city gained the infamous status as “Bombingham,” as churches and homes of civil rights workers were firebombed. Most notorious of the bombing was Shuttlesworth’s 16th Street Baptist Church. Nineteen sticks of dynamite, placed in a hole dug next to the foundation of the church, went off on a September Sunday morning in 1963 and killed four girls, ages 11 to 14.
The Institute provides a portrait of the segregated south (with its separate water coolers, bathrooms, and sections of buses), and then catalogs the events between the 1954 Supreme Court decision that declared the “separate but equal” school systems to be unconstitutional up through the 1965 voting rights act. Of course, the “separate but equal” policy was never equal as Birmingham provided almost twice as much per child school expenditures for white schools as it did for black school. Looking at the Institute, and thinking about the way the Federal Government intervened, I was reminded that not all that government does is bad. Here, “big government” helped right a terrible evil.
Upon leaving the Civil Rights Institute, I walked across the street to the 16th Street Baptist Church. The church stands on a corner and jutting out from the corner of the building, so it can be seen from both streets, is a blue metal cross with neon letters identifying the church. I took a tour of the faculty. The area in which the bomb detonated is now a kitchen and there is still a crack in the foundation visible there. Most interesting is a large stained glass window of the famous painting of Jesus knocking on a door (Behold, I stand at the door and knock). The bomb blew out only Jesus’ face. The woman in the gift shop told me about coming to church late that morning and hearing the blast and running to see what happened. There in the basement of the church is a clock that stopped that morning at 10:22 AM, the time of the bombing. Being there brought tears to my eyes as I realize it is almost always the young who suffer the most. As horrible as the girl’s death were, they became a rallying cry for the civil rights movement and their deaths accelerated the cause.
Yesterday, my brother-in-law and I canoed the Chattahoochee River near Atlanta. It was a long trip. He thought we were below a dam, but we were above it. I should have checked the maps! However, we had a great work-out, paddling five or six miles of flat water in near triple digit heat, before portaging around the dam. Once below the dam, the river sped up and we were treated to some small class one rapids. We talked about doing the Etowah River, up near Dahlonega. With my interest in mining history, I’ve long wanted to run that section, but every time I’m down here, the water is too low. There’s a place along the Etowah, where the river is diverted through a long tunnel. The tunnel was constructed to divert water so that the placer deposits in the river bed could be mined for gold. But there's a drought here and the water is so low here that it would was impossible to get through the tunnel. Maybe on the next trip! I fly home tomorrow.