I celebrated my 55th birthday this year. The summer was filled with reunions with friends and moments of spun gold with my children and grandchildren. I built a playhouse for Paisly and Harper. My birthday set in motion a series of memories long forgotten of my childhood days. The following thoughts have bounced around in my head for months now. The thoughts finally have enough cohesiveness that I feel like I can write them out.
I grew up in Birmingham, Alabama, same as Denise. She was born the same year as I. I was born on July 10, she, on November 17. We lived across town from one another. It was Fall, 1963. We were both starting out a new school year. Times in Birmingham were unsettled. Race riots were occurring in our city streets. Our parents constantly warned us to stay away from certain parts of town. There was fear and distrust of those having a different color of skin. It was a dark time in American history.
I didn’t know Denise. But our lives took a life changing turn on the same day. As I said, she and I had a lot in common. We both grew up in Christian homes. Her folks got the family up and ready for church every Sunday. It was the fifteenth of September and our families left for church pretty much like we always did. Even though everyone was up and ready early, we all seemed to busy ourselves with this and that and usually waited until the last minute to leave the house. It seemed no matter how early we got up and got ready for church there was always hurry and scurry as we finally got out the door.
My church was on the northwest side of Birmingham, hers was more in the central part of town. Her church had columns out front, my church had a brick and glass kind of flat look to it. My church never achieved much notoriety, hers was to make the national news that evening. My church didn’t have a bomb in the basement, hers did. I went home from church that Sunday, she didn’t.
On that day, in the basement of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church a bomb had been planted by some horribly un-christian, hate-filled person or persons. Only one person, by the way, was ever charged but it is to this day, presumed that more than one person was involved.
That day, Denise’s church made history. The explosion occurred while Denise and her friends were working on their Sunday school lessons in the basement. When the dust cleared, history was forever changed. On that day four young precious girls died. Addie Mae Collins, Carole Robertson, Cynthia Wesley and Denise McNair. None would live to see another birthday. As I said, Denise and I were born the same year. I was born white, she was born black. I got to celebrate a 55th birthday this year, Denise will not be so privileged.
History was made that day. The consequences of racism in all its ugliness was exposed. History books would point back to this date as a time when much of the nation finally woke up to the need for those of all races, colors and nations to seek peaceful ways to work out their differences.
And as much as I realize the significance of the event regarding national history, my personal history was affected most profoundly in those turbulent days on or around September15, 1963. And that, I suppose, explains why I have been compelled to write about it. A large part of who I am today was shaped in these troublesome yesterdays.
I now realize that it was in the days shortly to follow September 15 that I decided that I would no longer participate in racially motivated pranks nor use racial slurs. I would pray to God that we would see changes in attitude and conduct. My history changed that day. I’ve been a different person ever since. As sure and tragically as Denise and her two friends ceased to live that day, it was in many ways, the day a most significant part of my life sprang to life.