Monday, January 19, 2009
On September 15, 1963, I was sitting in my Southern Baptist Sunday School Class with all the other 8-year-old's, at University Baptist Church in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. Like every other Sunday, we wrapped up the lesson, then went into the main sanctuary for the children's sermon, which would be followed by an hour of the adult's sermon. Then everyone gathered outside on the lawn for the potluck lunch, followed by the afternoon church league baseball game, and then the evening service. It was one of many, many, long Sundays.
But in Birmingham, Alabama, that very same Sunday morning, another little girl named Carole, a 14-year-old girl, spent her morning being dead.
Someone decided to bomb her church, right before Sunday School class, at 10:22 a.m.
A massive explosion shook the church to its foundation. The noise was deafening. The entire Sixteenth Street wall of the building collapsed into the room amid screams of terror. Broken glass flew through the air like bullets. Rocks and chunks of mortar crashed into the ceiling and into opposite ends of the basement. Those that survived said the incredible force of the explosion propelled the little girls through the air like rag dolls. "It sounded like the whole world was shaking," said Reverend Cross later in court. "And the building, I thought, was going to collapse!" All the stained glass windows in the upper part of the church were shattered. The basement room filled with fine dust and all the lights went out. But one windowpane, which later became symbolic of the explosion, had remained mostly intact. Only the face of Jesus had been blown away.
Of course I didn't read that till many years later.
But what I did hear was my name, Carole, on the radio the following morning, September 16,1963, while I was eating breakfast. Mom had it turned on every morning, and I pretty much tuned it out for the most part, but that morning I heard my name coming out of it, so my ears perked up.
That night while my dad was reading the paper, I saw the front page, again, with my name, spelled the same way as I spell mine, with an "e", something I hadn't run across until then.
The Carole in the paper was Carole Robertson. She was 14 years old and went to Sunday School just like me. Her mom was a librarian, and Carole was "an avid reader" and she wanted to "be a historian, or do something with history when she grew up". That Carole was older than me, but she was starting to sound an awful lot just like me. I remember wondering what kind of people bomb little girls who like to read.
My parents did not discuss the bombing with me. They didn't hold the paper out in front of me and point it out. But they didn't stop me from laying the newspaper out on the coffee table and reading the article slowly to myself. And they didn't flinch when I pointed out that the picture of the little girl had her name under it, and her name was the same as mine. There was no discussion of who, why, or whether it was right or wrong.
All those things seemed to be beyond discussion, as if some tipping point had been reached.
Thinking back on it now and trying to pinpoint when my perspective changed,
exactly when something changed my outlook, and meant I would never turn out like some of my Deep South cousins or neighbors, I think this is the pivotal event. Living in Louisiana in the late 1950s and early 1960s meant knowing how to read the words "white" and "colored" before you could even read Dick and Jane; it meant knowing that no matter how much you love your nursery school sitter, she would never come to your house for dinner; and it meant never questioning why the children of the maid were not in your school, much less sitting next to you in class. It just was the way it was.
But then, there was that tipping point.
And everything that was "normal" slid sideways, and righted itself in new ways.
For me it was because of Carole-with-an-e-Robertson.
For the grownups, it may have been because of speeches by other grownups, words that resound again today, and remind us that, thankfully, the tipping point is here again, and events are sliding into new places, to right themselves yet again:
We have also come to this hallowed spot to remind America of the fierce urgency of now. This is no time to engage in the luxury of cooling off or to take the tranquilizing drug of gradualism. Now is the time to make real the promises of democracy... The whirlwinds of revolt will continue to shake the foundations of our nation until the bright day of justice emerges.
Martin Luther King Jr I Have A Dream (8-28-63)
Let us rise up tonight with a greater readiness. Let us stand with a greater determination. And let us move on in these powerful days, these days of challenge to make America what it ought to be. We have an opportunity to make America a better nation.
Martin Luther King, I've Been To The Mountaintop (4-3-68)