I was here in Birmingham, Alabama, on Sept. 15, 1963, when that infamous bomb exploded at the 16th Street Baptist Church. It failed to wake me because I was sound asleep at home on a Sunday morning, eight miles away from downtown.
It had been a furiously busy month for my employer, The Birmingham News. School integration had come, and Gov. George Wallace had defied a court order to admit blacks to white schools. This set off a series of demonstrations by blacks, which Police Commissioner Eugene “Bull” Conner immortalized by hammering them with police dogs and fire hoses. Wallace himself was zipping about the nation shooting off his mouth. A torchbearer in a powder plant, he confided to the New York Times that what Alabama needed was a “few first-class funerals.”
We in the news business had become somewhat jaded by this time. We cynically dubbed the marches “Bull Conner’s Spectaculars,” and one wag suggested they be made annual municipal events to suit the city’s character. Although their theatrical uproar frightened newsmen from the northern climes, our Spectaculars had begun to follow a predictable pattern. First, blacks would assemble at their protest epicenter, the 16th Street Church. This would trigger a retaliatory mobilization of Conner forces — police and firemen — to stop them. Conner would ride forth in a white, tank-like armored car, his head sticking out of the hatch like a mechanized Caucasian turtle. Blacks would march to be met by watery blasts from fire hoses and charges of barking dogs. Marchers would then retreat and everyone would tote up the casualties in the form of so many arrests, plus cases of pneumonia, influenza, or dog bite.
Adding to our malaise was the fact that civil rights forces seemed to be winning each day’s publicity battle, yet losing the war. The city government — backed by the power and majesty of the State of Alabama — stood as immobile and solid as did Red Mountain on the city’s skyline.
A local black lawyer’s house had been bombed for the second time in two weeks, but we were becoming blasé even about explosions. From 1947 to 1965 there were no fewer than 50 bombings in Birmingham, many occurring during the 1963 school integration marches. Some bombs set by the Klan failed to explode because of technical lapses. Naïve at first, we ran stories about these failures. We heckled the dumb Kluxers for forgetting details such as neglecting to scrape the paint off clock hands which had been tasked with making electrical contact and igniting the bomb. When Klansmen began remedying these faults, local authorities asked us to please stop the aid and assistance.
Our attitude in the press was simply, “We’ve seen it all before — it’ll all blow over in a while.” None of us expected much from the federal government. For years the feds had whistled and looked the other way as the Birmingham News and a few other kindred stalwarts had gone head to head with both Wallace and the Ku Klux Klan. FBI agents did little more than stand around, take notes, and snap pictures like so many uptight tourists.
Wallace certainly was not going to help. There were too many votes to be won by merely shouting fiery segregationist slogans. This is what we most despised about our governor: if he had been an old-line racist like so many southern politicians, his actions would have been easier to understand. But he wasn’t. He was in this game only for the votes, and for ensuring a lock on the state’s highest elective office.
As for local government, they considered their duty done when the police dogs snarled and the fire hoses squirted.
Although I shared the blithe cynicism of my colleagues, there was still a faint, nagging worry. The University of Mississippi had been integrated the previous September amid a night riot and a fusillade of gunfire which left two dead and 166 wounded, including 79 of 127 federal marshals on duty. We had covered these events thoroughly with staffers, one of whom discovered that the integration show was part of a large charade staged by Mississippi Governor Ross Barnett and the Kennedy Brothers in Washington. Designed to save face for all three politicians, the script called for marshals to attempt to register black applicant, James Meredith, during the week and be rebuffed. On Saturday, Gov. Barnett would withdraw his force of highway patrolmen, then the feds would “sneak” on campus with Meredith. Thus Barnett could yell “foul” and escape lynching by his own constituents.
Ignorant of the plot was a huge mob which had grown outside the Ole Miss campus during the week, as tensions multiplied. The majority of this crowd was composed of that same malevolent mass lurking just below the surface in every civilization, losers and fanatics, who worship every inanity their demagogue chiefs utter. Each had arrived on the scene with a weapon, plus a hot desire to save Southern womanhood. They actually believed Ross Barnett was holding off the federal government like Leonidas at Thermopylae. When news of the successful integration arrived, the mob roared on campus with guns and rocks to splatter the Kennedy-Barnett script with blood. It took an invasion of the U.S. Army to quell them.
I reflected uncomfortably that we certainly had more than our share of their kind in Birmingham. Ominously, our trash were also educated in mechanics and explosives.
But very little of this was on my mind that early Sunday afternoon as I drove Charlotte’s sister, Marie, downtown to the News building. Marie, who was visiting, had voiced a desire to see a big newspaper in operation. She certainly got far more than she asked for.
Although streets leading into downtown were deserted, as we approached I noticed an unusual number of people going in the News’ employee entrance. Once upstairs we found not the expected lone Sunday desk man, but the entire city staff telephoning, typing, talking frantically and rushing in and out of the building. Our two investigative reporters were conversing gravely with the city editor, and one, Bud Gordon, was wearing a pistol on his belt, a precaution whenever he covered Klan stories. None of the usual newsroom horseplay or joking was in sight.
Parking Marie at my habitat, the state desk, I soon got the raw facts. Klansmen had bombed the 16th Street Baptist Church after 10 that morning. The bomb hadn’t been the customary few-sticks-of-Dynamite noisemaker. It was a huge device meant to kill. And four little girls had died in the rubble. Thousands of blacks had rushed to the scene from nearby homes and city police had barely stopped the impending riot.
Although city news was not my area, I told Marie to sit and watch as I pitched in to help wherever I could, telephoning, rewriting copy, writing headlines and laying out pages. The news certainly wasn’t getting any better. Events were moving so fast I was tearing up pages as soon as I laid them out. Guns were going off in the black section and two youths were reported shot by Klansmen or police. Blacks were throwing rocks and bottles at cars driven by whites, many of whom were replying with bullets. Our loquacious governor was rushing in 300 highway patrolmen to aid city police. Five-hundred National Guardsmen were standing by at a local armory.
As the afternoon heated up, Marie announced she was bored and headed outside for a walk around the block. She returned a few minutes later and announced, “A chocolate drop just chased me.” This 1960s nouveau speak gave me pause until I realized she was saying a black man had just pursued her back into the building. I turned my attention to the city desk’s police radio which was uttering a stream of calls and assignments into the airwaves. Normally on a Sunday there was a 15 to 30-minute delay between calls. Today calls were coming in so fast the police dispatcher could barely keep up.
Obviously Marie and I could not return home by the route we had driven downtown. This was before the era of interstates, and no major land route to the East Side would be safe. I had only a machete in my car for armament, which makes a poor riposte to rocks, bottles and bullets. Marie could spend the night in the women’s restroom and lounge, sharing the couch or floor with female staffers. But the food situation was grim. The few baloney sandwiches and peanut butter crackers in our cafeteria machines were rapidly vanishing. No one could guess how long the siege might last.
And still the news got worse. Fires were reported breaking out in the black residential section adjacent to the 16th Street Church. The police dispatcher began to sound as though he was trying out for a tobacco auctioneer’s job. The wailing of fire engines outside began to compete with shots and shouts. Night was falling, and it looked as though darkness might soon conceal an orgy of vandalism, arson, and murder. One tiny bright spot pierced the gloom: Klansmen had fled the downtown area. They hadn’t the stomach to shoot it out with blacks in the dark. It was the beginning of a long retreat which would shred the Invisible Empire and leave it a hunted enemy in society.
At this lowest of deep nadirs, it happened: we got word Martin Luther King had arrived in town and was addressing a meeting of local black leaders. What he said we didn’t learn that night, but he must have laid some powerful words on them. Those words seemed to spread instantly through the entire black community, because a short time later the police dispatcher slowed down and caught his breath while the fire calls abated. Staffers who ventured outside reported all quiet everywhere. Other reports trickled in: well-dressed blacks were patrolling the streets, corralling rock-throwing juveniles and leading stranded white motorists to safety.
I got Marie home by speeding up the middle of First Avenue North. As we hummed along the wide deserted thoroughfare, I tried to construct a logical facade for the day’s bewildering events — but at that moment they were too big, too numbing. A cosmic Rubicon had been crossed for certain; perhaps a mountain had been shattered. Nothing would ever be the same again. But whether for good or bad? I would leave that to the Sunday columnists. They were paid to connect the dots, tie up the strings, make sense of the senseless, and then tell the average man what really happened.