Where was my courage? Where was my conviction? Did I not understand that being a follower of Christ meant that I was supposed to obey His commands and model His teachings to those around me?
Fifty years ago this week, Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee, about a month before I graduated from high school. I was a middle-class, white girl from Alabama who “came of age” in the 1950’s and 60’s. I well remember the days of “colored” restrooms, separated seating in theaters and colored vs. white water fountains. Churches and schools were separated. The blacks had theirs. The whites had theirs.
On my 4th birthday, May 17, 1954, the Supreme Court ruled unanimously that “separate educational facilities are inherently unequal.” I didn’t know what that meant, and I certainly didn’t see a lot of change happen in my world. But, terms like “segregation” and “integration” slowly made its way into my consciousness. We didn’t get a television until about 1957-58. I remember that my parents watched the news, and I loved “Captain Kangaroo” and “The Hit Parade,” but gradually the images on the screen showed increasing incidents of whites fighting against blacks and blacks becoming more and more impatient to have the freedoms they deserved. Names like Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King, Jr. were heard frequently, and words like “Ku Klux Klan,” “discrimination” and “sit-ins” crept into conversations. Birmingham seemed to be a hotbed of news stories, many featuring arrests and protests.
A quarter of a million people marched on Washington, D.C. in 1963, when I was 13 years old, and just a few weeks later, four young black girls were killed when a bomb exploded in the 16th Avenue Baptist Church in Birmingham on a Sunday morning. Those four innocent faces were on the front pages of every newspaper. I remember being sad and horrified that people could get killed IN CHURCH!!
President Lyndon Johnson worked hard to get Congress to pass the Civil Rights Act, and it finally happened in 1964. Thousands of people marched from Selma, AL to Montgomery, AL in 1965 and that led to the Voting Rights Act which allowed ALL citizens to vote, regardless of color or economic condition.
My high school was officially integrated during my junior year. I remember feeling sorry for the three black students who somehow must have “drawn the short straws” and had to leave their former school and enroll in Charles Henderson High School in Troy. They walked to class together and sat at a lunch table by themselves. Several others came during our senior year, but those first three had to blaze the trail. I don’t believe I was ever unpleasant to any of them, but on the other hand, I didn’t go out of my way to befriend them either. I’m sorry about that and wish I could have a do-over.
When I think back on all of the Sunday School lessons and sermons I heard during those years, I wonder now why I didn’t hear more verses like these:
Acts 10:34-35 – “Then Peter began to speak: ‘I now realize how true it is that God does not show favoritism but accepts from every nation the one who fears him and does what is right.’ “
Galatians 3:28 – “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”
Revelation 5:9 – “And they sang a new song, saying: “You are worthy to take the scroll and to open its seals, because you were slain, and with your blood you purchased for God persons from every tribe and language and people and nation.”
No favoritism. All one in Christ. Persons from EVERY tribe and people.
The Word is clear. Why did it take so long for Christians to understand the depth of meaning in those words? I’d like to think if I could go back I would have been in on those protests and marches and sit-ins showing my support for my fellow residents of my community. I truly wish I had done something, anything.
I have to mention here what joy our African granddaughter brings to our lives. If ONLY I had known then what I know now.
These are some of my thoughts on this important anniversary and after a recent visit to the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute. I recommend a visit. It is sobering.