It was fifty years ago. Birmingham, Alabama was one of the most segregated cities in the United States. Civil rights demonstrators were met with police dogs and water cannons. The eyes of the world were on Birmingham, a flash point for the civil rights movement. On Sunday, September 15, 1963, members of the Ku Klux Klan planted nineteen sticks of dynamite under the back steps of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church, which served as a meeting place for civil rights organizers. The explosion claimed the lives of four little girls. Their murders shocked the nation and turned the tide in the struggle for equality.
Carole Weatherford’s acclaimed poetry collection, published in 2008, has been reissued to mark this important anniversary. Recipient of the Lee Bennett Hopkins Poetry Award, the Jefferson Cup Award, and a Jane Addams Children’s Book Award Honor winner, the book is a timely, moving memorial written in exquisite, understated free verse.
Carole joins us today for an interview.
Could you discuss your research/creative process?
After writing “Freedom on the Menu: The Greensboro Sit-ins”, I wanted to tackle another watershed event in the Civil Rights Movement. I chose the church bombing because, at the time, there was not children’s book devoted to the subject. The death of the four girls turned the tide of public opinion against white supremacists and the systemic racism that they avowed.
I began research using primary sources in the Birmingham Public Library collection. I read newspaper accounts of the event, viewed news photos, and read responses by President John F. Kennedy and the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. I also referred to secondary sources. An article that interviewed the girls’ families helped me to humanize and personalize the victims.
Why did you use poetry to tell the story?
Most of my books are poetry or are a hybrid genre blending poetry, biography, fiction or nonfiction. For example, I, Matthew Henson, Jesse Owens: Fastest Man Alive, and Before John Was a Jazz Giant: A Song of John Coltrane are poetic biographies. Becoming Billie Holiday is a fictional verse memoir. The Sound that Jazz Makes and a Negro League Scrapbook are poetic informational books. Birmingham, 1963 is an elegy. But it is also a narrative poem, a historical fiction. Poetry allows me to conjure images and distill emotions that make the story powerful.
Why did you choose historical fiction and create an anonymous narrator?
The historical events are true, but the first-person narrator is fictional. I use historical fiction to give young readers a character with whom to identify. In so doing, young readers grapple with social justice issues. I did not want names of fictional characters to stick in readers’ minds or to take the focus off the real victims. Also, the narrator’s anonymity draws readers even closer to the action. In this scene, she struggles to get out of the church after the blast.
Smoke clogged my throat, stung my eyes.
As I crawled past crumbled plaster, broken glass,
Shredded Bibles and wrecked chairs—
Yelling Mama! Daddy!—scared church folk
Ran every which way to get out.
Why set the tragedy on the narrator’s birthday?
In the eyes of children, turning ten is a big deal, a childhood milestone bordering on a rite of passage. The bombing actually occurred on the church’s Youth Day. To compound the irony and up the emotional ante, I made the bombing coincide with the narrator’s tenth birthday. The main character is looking forward to singing a solo during worship service and to celebrating her birthday. Instead, she survives a church bombing and mourns four older girls. That setting dramatically juxtaposes birthday candles and the bundle of dynamite which sparked the explosion. The milestone resonates like a mantra, beginning as The year I turned ten and building to The day I turned ten.
Is the bombing still relevant today?
Nowadays, racism is usually more subtle and less definitive. Even hate crimes are more difficult to pinpoint and to prove. Many argue that racism motivated neighborhood watch volunteer George Zimmerman, who murdered teenager Trayvon Martin. In a more clear-cut case of hate violence, in 1998, James Byrd, an African-American man, was dragged three miles to his death by three white men (two white supremacists) in a pickup truck. . And in 2006, nooses were hung in a tree on a high school campus in Jena, Mississippi, after a black student tried to sit with white students at lunch. As long as racism persists and this nation exists, stories from the African-American freedom struggle will remain relevant.
Do you recall the bombing?
My earliest recollections of televised news—besides the space race—were in 1963. I can remember watching the March on Washington and hearing the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech. I also recall President Kennedy’s assassination and funeral.
But I do not recall the church bombing. I was just seven years old at the time. If I had known about the tragedy, it would have frightened me. I suspect now that my parents kept the news from me. That was how black parents shielded their children from the sting of segregation. So, I tried now to imagine how I would have mourned then. The child in me connected with anonymous narrator.
Did you see yourself in the four girls? How much of you is in the anonymous narrator?
In 1963 I was seven years old and had already written my first poem. I grew up in Baltimore and did not experience the degree of discrimination that they did in Birmingham. But In many ways, I was those girls.
Like Addie Mae Collins, I drew portraits, played hopscotch and wore my hair press and curled.
Like Cynthia Wesley, I was a mere wisp of a girl who sometimes wore dresses that my mother sewed. I sang soul music and sipped sodas with friends.
Like Denise McNair, I liked dolls, made mud pies and had a childhood crush. I was a Brownie, had tea parties and hosted a neighborhood carnival for muscular dystrophy. People probably thought I’d be a real go-getter.
Like Carole Robertson, I loved books, earned straight A’s and took music and dance lessons. I joined the Girl Scouts and was a member of Jack and Jill of America. I too hoped to make my mark. We are both Caroles with an “e.”
In researching the book, did you discover anything that surprised you?
Yes. The stained glass window of Jesus almost survived the blast intact.
10:22 a.m. The clock stopped, and Jesus’ face
Was blown out of the only stained glass window
Left standing—the one where He stands at the door.
It is ironic that Jesus was left faceless—as if He couldn’t bear to witness the violence. Here’s a photo.
Did you learn anything about that tragic day that gets forgotten?
Yes. Two African-American boys died in the violent aftermath of the church bombing. Sixteen-year-old James Robinson was short in the back by police after a rock-throwing incident with a gang of white teens. Thirteen-year-old Virgil Ware was shot by a white boy riding a moped draped with a Confederate flag.
How are you marking the 50th anniversary of the church bombing?
This fall, I am offering free Skype visits to schools that read Birmingham, 1963.
Carole provided the following links to classroom resources:
Free Film Kits (from Teaching Tolerance Magazine)– Mighty Times: The Children’s Marchand America’s Civil Rights Movement: A Time for Justice
Birmingham Public Library Digital Collections — Sixteenth Street Baptist Church Collection
The Rise and Fall of Jim Crow (PBS) – For Teachers
Eyes on the Prize (PBS) – For Teachers http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/amex/
Teachers Guide Primary Source Set – Jim Crow in America
Songs of the Civil Rights Movement (NPR) — http://www.npr.org/2010/01/18/
Thank you, Carole.
To be eligible to win a Skype visit with Carole Weatherford for your classroom, please leave a comment below. The winner and Carole will coordinate dates and times.