When my daughter said she wanted to make our annual “Thelma and Louise” road trip to Birmingham this year, I was hesitant – and somewhat paranoid. I hesitated because memories of a city once known as “Bombingham” still lay at the back of my mind. Memories of “Bull” Connor, his hoses, his dogs, and his cruelty. Memories of four little girls who were murdered by the Klan. I was paranoid, too, because we were making this journey on the Tuesday after the Dayton and El Paso shootings.
All of these things were on my mind as we walked through the entrance of the 16th Street Baptist Church where, in the basement, there were four separate rooms, each with a short film related to the events of 1963. One of them showed how news of the bombing was received around the world. In this documentary, there was a picture of a woman living in a neighboring state, a woman who upon hearing about the bombing wore all of her feelings on every line and angle of her face.
My daughter and I were standing in the rear of the church when suddenly we heard a loud screeching sound followed by a thunderous crash. Shaken, we ran out a side door and saw the remains of a traffic accident. A young man whose truck had been cut off had crashed into a pole. Before I even realized she had moved, my daughter raced down the steps of the church and crossed the street. She stood talking to the young man for a minute, then reached up and gave him a reassuring hug. A few minutes later we were back inside talking to one of the guides, an African American woman who was about the same age as me.
“How can you do this?’ I asked her. “How can you volunteer to be inside here day after day. Aren’t you afraid?”
“Listen,” she replied, “You can live in fear, or you can live.” I couldn’t help but smile at her bravery and her determination.
We left the church then and crossed the street to the Civil Rights Institute where my daughter, overwhelmed by displays of segregation and degradation, broke down and cried. As I walked beside her I realized the displays were all too familiar to me, all of them headlines I saw in my youth. One image, however, a photograph of a young Black man hanging from a tree haunted me and kept me awake for several nights until I returned home and saw another that was eerily similar. It was a photo on my Twitter feed, a photo of two policemen on horseback with a young Black man walking between them. A young man whose hands were handcuffed behind him. A young man who was tethered to one of the horses with a rope.
While in Birmingham I thought we had come a long way since 1963, but back at home I wasn’t so sure.