Church burnings, church bombings

June 29, 1996|By Harold Jackson

VIOLENCE DOESN't just happen. The cowards who bombed Sixteenth Street Baptist Church on September 15, 1963, were convinced that they were doing what white people wanted. Not just their racist brethren in Birmingham, Ala., whose desires they knew from Klan meetings. But also others, whose silence was taken as an unspoken sign of mutual contempt for the civil-rights movement.

That silence was deafening when the Freedom Riders came to town and were beaten up in 1961. The silence of the good encouraged the perpetrators of all the racial bombings that occurred in the years before the Sixteenth Street blast left four little girls dead.

Birmingham was ripe for that tragedy. Fred Shuttlesworth had been leading protests since the late 1950s. Martin Luther King's subsequent non-violent demonstrations led to violent confrontations that served as the burning fuse to an inevitable loss of lives.

King came to Birmingham in April, 1963, and left in May, having won an agreement to integrate lunch counters and hire black sales clerks downtown. Those gains seem so modest. But the tensions left from the turmoil it took to achieve them remained high. The volatility produced my first recognition of racism.

Ten years old, and knowing nothing but segregation, I never really thought much about white people or what they thought about me. Riding in the back of a bus or my mother having trouble finding her child a public restroom never struck me as being racial.

I learned the truth in 1963 while walking to the store. A traffic light changed. I was about to step into the street when a speeding pick- up truck blew by, with two or three little white boys in the back screaming ''nigger.'' I had heard the word before, but never from a white person. Only then did I become aware of the hatred in those two syllables. I remember wondering what had I done to those kids.

The milk man's daughter

It wasn't many weeks later that the church was bombed, killing Cynthia Wesley, Addie Mae Collins, Carol Robertson and Denise McNair. Denise went to the same elementary school that I did. Her mother taught there. Her father was our milk man. Chris McNair went on to become a state legislator and a county commissioner, but I won't forget him in his white uniform, collecting empty glass bottles and leaving full ones of milk and buttermilk on our porch.

I lived in Loveman Village, a housing project. After the church bombing, my daddy and a lot of other men stayed outside all night with the porch lights on. Those who owned guns were armed.

Two other black children were killed that day. Johnny Robinson, 16, was shot in the back by police. Two white kids shot Virgil Ware, 13, as he rode his bicycle. They shot him because what they heard told them that was acceptable. The church was bombed because scoundrels took their neighbors' silence as acquiescence in what they were about to do.

Thirty-three years later, someone is torching black churches. The blazes have occurred in several Southern states, so no one really knows how many arsonists are involved. If there is no conspiracy, the criminals are of like minds.

The church burners, like the church bombers, are heartened by the silence of those of us who are ignoring today's masking of racism in less offensive terms such as ''preserving our neighborhoods'' and ''protecting our jobs.''

Much of the opposition rhetoric in the debates over affirmative action and the dispersal of low-income housing can be appropriated by racists without changing a word. That allows church burners, like church bombers, to convince themselves that they are no different from, and think like, everyone else. They won't stop until people speak up and prove them wrong.

Harold Jackson writes editorials for The Sun.

Pub Date: 6/29/96

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