Meeting examines racism in South today Alabama conference focuses on what steps still need to be taken

November 15, 1998|By COX NEWS SERVICE

BIRMINGHAM, Ala. -- Eighteen bombs exploded in black neighborhoods of Birmingham between 1957 and 1963 -- none worse than the one that ripped through the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church on a Sunday morning 35 years ago.

Dynamite rocketed brick and steel through the church's basement, killing four little girls, shaming a city that came to be known as "Bombingham" and spurring a reluctant nation to begin the task of righting its racial wrongs.

Hundreds of black and white Southerners gathered in the restored church yesterday to look back at the shock and terror of Sept. 15, 1963, as a way to begin a three-day conference addressing the racism, poverty and inequality of the South today.

They met in the church sanctuary under the watchful gaze of a black crucified Christ in stained glass -- a memorial commemorating the bombing that transformed the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church into one of America's freedom shrines.

"Time can be a great healer of things," said Alpha Robertson, whose daughter, Carole, then 14, died in the dynamite blast at the church.

"It should not have happened, but we went right on living."

And 35 years later, most agreed, the South is a much better place, even if it falls far short of the ideal the conference delegates envision for the next century: a region of biracial democracy.

"We're here to make certain the next generation of Southerners live in a more just society, one that values the contributions of all of its citizens," said Sherry Magill, executive director of the Jessie Ball duPont Fund in Jacksonville, Fla., which provided much of the funding for the conference.

Georgia Rep. John Lewis, recalling the years he spent organizing nonviolent challenges of the South's oppressive Jim Crow laws, described how much fear blacks once faced in the South. "But the fear is gone," he added.

Two prominent white Southerners who joined Lewis in a panel discussion yesterday suggested it is time for their fellow whites to assume a greater responsibility for improving race relations in the region and the country.

"One of the things we white folks do not understand completely is this business of white privilege," said former Gov. William Winter of Mississippi, who served on President Clinton's racial advisory board.

The board's report said white Americans are mostly unaware of the political, economic and social advantages they enjoy simply because they are white.

"Most white people think we've come farther in race relations than black folks think we have," Winter said.

Acknowledging that he cannot look back on the civil rights struggle of the 1960s with a clear conscience, Winter expressed optimism that the recommendations of the president's advisory board can produce public policies that will allow all Americans to live "with dignity and respect."

The Rev. Will Campbell, a longtime human rights activist in the South, lamented that "things haven't changed that much" among white Southerners.

He said too many whites "traffic in divisiveness."

"There cannot be genuine reconciliation until there is atonement on the part of the offending party," Campbell said.

Pub Date: 11/15/98

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