I’ve never identified with the American South, although many who were raised with me in Central Kentucky did. To be fair, I didn’t identify much as a Kentuckian, though I had very little reason not to. I had taken the rare trip through the deep south, but more for leisure than cultural experiences. Perhaps it was my father, from Central Pennsylvania who kept us from ever embracing anything known as Southern Culture, or perhaps many throughout the geographic Southeast don’t often claim the cultural traits of the region.
Growing up we would take the occasional trip to Pennsylvania to visit family and while there would take excursions to Lancaster, Hershey and of course Gettysburg. I have vivid memories from when I was young visiting Gettysburg and walking the battlefield where the Union soldiers finally were able to stop the rebel advance and begin to end the Confederacy. Tragedy marks otherwise common ground sacred, and the spirit of sacrifice weighs heavy on the fields of Gettysburg. After 150 years the grass cries with the pain and death of that great Union victory – And thank God for the victors! With the Emancipation Proclamation came the end of American Slavery and the final battles of the civil war placed the final punctuation on one of the darkest chapters of American History. If only the last shots of the war were closing the book on racism in America and the sin of centuries of slavery could be absolved by Executive Order.
The truth is far more painful, horrible and beautiful than my simple wishes. A conquered South further resented Northern occupiers and carpet-baggers. A people stolen from their homeland now had no place to go. In a short-sighted and brutally inhumane attempt at maintaining the status quo the white establishment worked to keep black families from work, education, political representation and integration for another 100 years. The stories of abuses to minorities in the south painted the region as backwards, racist and openly hostile toward progressive ideas. Any who would stand to defend the South received the same label. I am quick to harbor those feelings against the South myself, with little tolerance for those who would dare be represented by the rebel flag and disdain for those who can’t see the realities of white privilege or who think the weak and marginal policies now known as “affirmative action constitute an attack on white men. My hate and prejudice prevented me from seeing the reality of history.
My work required me to take a trip to Birmingham, Alabama recently and, if you can’t tell by the content of this post, I was not thrilled. What value could be found in Birmingham? After an uneventful few days working I returned home, but not before stopping in Downtown Birmingham at the behest of a colleague.
While downtown I visited 16th St. Baptist Church, the site of one of many terrorist attacks which would earn the region the name “Bombingham.” On September 15, 1963 four young girls were preparing for a church program when a bomb placed near the rear wall of the church took their lives. 22 other children were injured. Though the bomb may have been physically set by 4 cowardly men targeting black children, there were many societal forces which did all but light the fuse. In fact, the governor of Alabama just the week before the attack stated that integration could be stopped with a few “first-class funerals.” This is the same governor Lynyrd Skynyrd would praise singing “In Birmingham they love the Governor” in their pop-defense Sweet Home Alabama.
I touched the bricks which had withstood the blast and wondered what my reaction to an attack on my family and friends might be. Surely I would respond in anger, hate and violence. I walked across the street looking for a place to rest in a nearby park but found myself at ground zero of the “Birmingham Campaign” – the Southern Christian Leadership Conference’s public effort to relieve the plight of southern black families. The park now has a statue of notoriously racist Safety Commissioner Bull Connor, with his dogs ready to attack. A water gun sits on a pedestal, bars representing jail cover a statue of children and in the middle of it all, 3 men on their knees in prayer. These statues were constructed to help us remember the remarkable events before and after the 16th Street Bombing. After countless violence, threats to their family and jobs, arrests, beatings, attacks and murders; men, women and children unencumbered by fear gathered at 16th Street Baptist Church and walked together across the park. When the lines of Bull Connor’s thugs of a police force were met, these foot-soldiers of the civil rights movement would sit, sing and kneel, praying as their families were attacked and taken off to jail. Tragedy marks otherwise common ground sacred and as I stood in the heart of the Civil Rights movement I saw the beauty, power and strength of these southern Christians. You must go to Pennsylvania and D.C. to stand where Lincoln stood, but you must go to Alabama to walk the steps of Dr. King.
As we continue to struggle for equality for all, I will do my best to remember that there is more honor in affecting change than being removed from the campaign judging the establishment from the distance.