A beacon of truth and reconciliation
Words by Deborah Burst
Behind the proverbial curtain of every life-changing event, there are those who continue to fight long after the finale.
And so is the story of the Kids in Birmingham 1963, a website where quiet heroes share their stories in fighting for freedom. Founder and director Ann Jimerson notes that the nonprofit is also dedicated to promoting improved teaching of civil rights history and increased dialogue on race and reconciliation.
In 1963, Birmingham became the epicenter of racial violence, as the city’s community of color wanted the same rights, same schools, same books, same jobs, and the same neighborhoods. The community came together in peaceful protests organized by local leaders and by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
On May 2, 1963, thousands of students gathered at the 16th Street Baptist Church and began marching to downtown Birmingham. Hundreds were arrested and jailed, but it didn’t deter them, and the next day hundreds more gathered to march. That’s when public safety commissioner Eugene “Bull” Connor directed the local police and fire departments to use force to stop the demonstrators.
Children were blasted by high-pressure fire hoses, clubbed by police officers, and attacked by dogs. Images flooded the media and triggered outrage throughout the world. The Birmingham protests were one of the major turning points in the Civil Rights Movement, igniting protests across the country and the eventual passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
In September of the same year, on a Sunday morning, four African-American schoolgirls were changing into their choir robes in the basement of the 16th Street Baptist Church. A bomb set by a Ku Klux Klansman ripped through the side of the church, killing 11-year-old Denise McNair, along with Carole Robertson, Cynthia Wesley, and Addie Mae Collins, each 14 years old.
Ann Jimerson’s family moved to Birmingham to join the Civil Rights Movement. On the day of the church bombing, Ann’s father came home with a box full of broken glass from the church windows. The family peered into the glass with tears streaming down their faces. Months later, Ann created a mosaic of the jagged pieces and shared the origin with her art teacher. The teacher reverently said nothing, but Ann realized even her silence was a blessing, as both shared a moment of truth.
Barbara Cross, age 13 in 1963, and daughter of Pastor John H. Cross Jr., of the 16th Street Baptist Church, clearly remembers that September morning studying her Sunday School lesson in the church basement. “There was a horrific noise, and the building seemed to be shaken off the foundation,” she notes on the website, admitting she still cries thinking about it. “Little did I realize that we were victims of a racist terrorist attack and that my four friends were just several feet away from my Sunday School class, dead in the bathroom.”
Freeman A. Hrabowski III, age 12 in 1963, vividly recalls his heart racing with both fear and anticipation in leading one of the marching groups downtown to City Hall, where they would kneel and pray for freedom. Bull Connor stopped them and asked Hrabowski, “What do you want little Niggra?” Hrabowski replied, “We want our freedom.”
All the child demonstrators were shoved into paddy wagons and spent five days in jail. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. addressed the children and their parents, “What you children do this day will have an impact on children who have not been born.”
That message stuck with Hrabowski. Over the last decades he has been an educational leader for students from underrepresented and marginalized backgrounds. And in 2012, President Barack Obama named Hrabowski to chair the President’s Advisory Commission on Educational Excellence for African Americans.
Jeff Drew, son of John and Addine Drew, grew up in the North Smithfield community. Nicknamed “Dynamite Hill,” black families tried to buy homes across Birmingham’s color line.
Jeff still lives in his parent’s house and refuses to remove the tall brick wall built around the house to protect the family from bullets and bombs. “I won’t tear it down. That wall was built as a testament not to fold in the face of violence and terrorism,” Jeff explains.
But Jeff admits that the bigger story was their determination. “We were not afraid to die for the cause of freedom and equality, and we’re still not! Freedom is not free. It requires a continuous commitment to maintain. Sadly, many have abused this freedom, and slowly those freedoms gained for the lives of people like us may soon be lost. We need today’s kids to embrace intelligence and dignity.”
Ann Jimerson has ignited a beacon of truth and reconciliation. Sensitive in taking credit, she reminds everyone that all she did was provide a forum free of prejudice. “I encourage you to read the stories on our website. It's been an honor for me to meet so many who grew up alongside me and whom I couldn't have known because of segregation.”