The Dirty South
During the times of the Civil Rights Movement the black communities of Birmingham, Alabama suffered severely due to the notorious acts of racism geared towards them simply because they were black. They boldly endured beatings, lynching, bombings, and demeaning treatment from the white community and especially from the Clan. The September 15, 1963 racially motivated bombing of the Birmingham’s Sixteenth Street Baptist Church, which resulted in the deaths of four innocent black girls, was one of the darkest moments of the Civil Rights Movement and perhaps one of the darkest days in Birmingham, Alabama’s history. Betty Blackman was born and raised in Birmingham. Her life was engulfed by the racism and left her with dramatically scaring memories of Birmingham.
I grew up in the city of Birmingham, Alabama. I was born there December 11, 1947. Most of the memories I have of growing up there are the most painful memories that I have, which is strong racism and living in every day fright. I remember not being able to drink out of the cleaner water fountains around town; they were for the white people. The water fountains that were available to us were few, far between and very filthy. The black people were treated like dogs in Birmingham. I remember having to enter of the all stores and restaurants in town through the back entrances. One place I remember so vividly was a restaurant called Stadium Grill. We ordered food there every week while we were doing the wash across the street at the Laundromat. We enter in the back door into a very tiny poorly lit room. There were no tables or chairs for us to sit and eat there, it wasn’t allowed. There was only a small window to which we placed our orders and left. The front of the restaurant was large; it had tables with real cloth coverings and beautiful flowers sitting in the middle of the tables. I never once stepped foot inside the front of that restaurant. The way our communities were much different than they are now. Black people were not allowed to live among the white people. The white people lived in big lavish homes on the far east side of town and the blacks lived on the west side of town in small run down homes. There was, however, one subdivision that the wealthier black families lived. The name of it was the Goldwire Area and even now it never compares to the homes in which the poverty stricken families live now. The other less fortunate blacks lived in run down shack like homes farther west of town.
I was sixteen years old when the bombing of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church took place. I remember it so well, because it was such a traumatic time and we tend to remember traumatic times more than the less traumatic. I remember sitting in a chair in our kitchen getting my hair pressed when my family got the news. The smell of freshly pressed hair takes my mind back to those times. My parents got a phone call and I remember hearing my mother scream the most horrible scream I’d ever heard. She was weeping very hard when she told my siblings and me about it. I can still see the pain of that memory in her eyes today. A few days later, I heard some other adults around our neighborhood talking about it. They were saying this explosion wasn’t very loud but it had a tremendous impact on the church. The bombings had become a way of life for us and well as the harassment from the Clan. Someone’s house was bombed almost every week, but until this point in time no one was killed. I remember an incident when the Clan set off a small bomb in the center of the black neighborhood. The plan was to draw a crowd, set off a much larger bomb, and kill a large majority of black people. Their plans were intervened by the FBI. They found the bomb, but I don’t remember anyone being charged with anything because of it. When I found out about the girls being killed, my heart went out to them and their families. Although, I didn’t know any of the girls personally, I did know one of the girls father, Mr. Chris Mc Nair. Mr. Mc Nair was a prominent black photographer in Birmingham. He took all of the school photos, wedding portraits, and all of the family portraits in the black community. Before the explosion and the death of his daughter, Mr. Mc Nair was a cheerful, happy, calm man, but even years later he was a cold, unconcerned and just an impatient man. This was the case among most of the black people in Birmingham after the bombing. We didn’t have much, but we did take pride in family and our community.
After the bombing, the town went pretty much back to normal to a certain degree. I can say, however, that there was a stronger sense of fear in the black community and a stronger sense of resolve, because these kinds of tragedies had to be stopped. So, the bombing in a sense caused our community to pull together more and push harder to make the change. More black people than before began to participate in the Civil Rights movement. More of them showed up for the marches and more people attended the meetings. Most of all, people had more respect for the ministers that participated in the movement at Birmingham. They realized that any minister that participated life was literally in danger because they had such a big influence on the black community. Really, I think more people were also participating more because the lives that were lost were so innocent and precious, and it was in their own back yards. The children killed in that church could have been their own and because of these facts a change had to be made. I remember my mother saying that she believed that the bombing was geared at the church because Reverend Shadowsworth was a big supporter of the movement. Reverend Shadowsworth was the minister residing over the church at that time and he supported and participated in much of the movement. He and his wife had been beaten several times by the Clan and their house had been bombed more than once. I just couldn’t understand what black people had done that was so awful to be treated this way.
Lately, I’ve been thinking about the racism and all of the bombings in Birmingham. I compare the terrorism we endured then to the terrorism the United States is enduring now. Then, we were living in constant fear for our lives and the lives of our loved ones. Now, the whole country is living that way today. It’s funny how the Old South was always called the “Bible Belt,” when nothing was ran according to the teachings of the Bible. I often think of what my great aunt used to say, “The white folks threw the rock and now they are trying to hide their hands.”
I am fifty-six now and I have two children of my own. I couldn’t imagine them having to live in the conditions that we were forced to live. I am proud of the men and women that gave their sweat, blood, and lives to get us where we are today and I thank them for it everyday. I think mostly about those times around the month of February, because it is dedicated to black history and Birmingham has a lot of black history. I am a better person today than I was years ago in Birmingham. It took me a long while to get from that bitter place that I was in. I actually hated white people, because of the tragedies we witnessed and endured in Birmingham. Back then, I never could understand why Dr. King always preached for non-violence, while unnecessary violence was displayed on us on a daily basis, but now through the grace of God I understand. Nothing positive comes out of violence and because I had found the Lord, I know that vengeance is His. For these two reasons, I no longer feel hate toward any white person or my life in Birmingham. I can move along with my life and have love for all.