WHITE PRIVILEGE IN MID-CENTURY BIRMINGHAM1
Four Little Girls2
It was during the Sunday school hour on September 15, 1963 at Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham Alabama, directly across from Kelly Ingram Park, the only park in downtown Birmingham in which its black citizens could gather and the organizing point of recent racial demonstrations. Four young African American girls were primping in the basement of the church when the dynamite exploded: Addie Mae Collins (14); Carole Robertson (14), Cynthia Wesley (14), and Denise McNair (11). The girls were killed and the conscience of a nation was finally stirred. The story of this national tragedy has often been told. It is now part of the fabric of America’s terrible racial history. What is not so well known is Birmingham before that Sunday and its history of racially motivated bombings, and how the city got its shameful nickname of “Bombingham.”
Son of the Rough South3
Unlike some of the panel today, I have no old south heritage But I have lived in the south all of my life save for two and one half years. I was born in Birmingham, Alabama in 1943 into an Italian-American and Roman Catholic family. Birmingham was founded after the Civil War and named for a future that all hoped to be comparable to its name-sake city of the new industrial revolution in England. Set in Jones Valley between the last of the Appalachian Mountains to the south and smaller hills and heights to the north, it was mainly an accident of geography in the confluence of coal, iron ore, and limestone, the main ingredients for making iron and steel, that led its founders to have the dream of a major industrial city in a new south—indeed, as the quickly growing Birmingham came to be known, the “Magic City.” It is also important to know that Birmingham was laid out for efficiency and growth. Each block was symmetrical and numbered, with avenues and courts moving east to west, and streets north to south.4
I grew up in Birmingham’s northern hills in a then mostly lower-middle and working class neighborhood known as Fountain Heights, later to be renamed “Dynamite Hill.” And this is where the reminiscence I wish to share with you begins.5
Life on Dynamite Hill
I was about 9 or 10 years old when the first blast came and the windows of our house shook. We soon discovered that down the block and around the corner from our home at 1128 12th Court North a house, not much smaller than ours, had been bombed. A black dentist had purchased a home with a basement office about fifty feet from where 12th Court North changed its perfect symmetry from a white to a black street. The dentist had moved in that fifty feet from safety to danger, from black to white. When I asked my Italian grandmother, who had come to Birmingham when she was 17 years old before the turn of the century and soon after its founding, who had done this she said, “night riders.” I had never heard that name before. She quickly clarified it for me, ”The Klan,” she said, and then I understood.
Later I was to see robed Klan members processing into the local Methodist Church for the eleven o’clock service one Sunday morning. Sometimes the cover for the Klan were groups called “White Citizens Councils” which, as rumor had it, found leadership among some of the white residents of Fountain Heights.6
The City of Fear
Marc Gado writes:
From the period of 1948 up to 1957, there were 48 unsolved racial bombings in Birmingham alone. An … industrial city of 350,000 people, Birmingham was the largest and most volatile city in Alabama. Its black population was severely segregated in every way, economically, socially and especially in the labor market where they were confined to menial, low-paying jobs. Under Police Commissioner Eugene “Bull” Connor, an admitted supporter of segregation, the bombings had virtually no chance of being solved. Klansmen sometimes rode along with city police on patrol. Even the police officers who were not members were afraid to react lest they become the next target of the fanatical Klan.7
New South Apartheid: The Topography of Fountain Heights
As I said, Birmingham was a symmetrical city of clear and hard lines. Straight streets for a new industrial time. But the Number 12 Fountain Heights bus told another story about this “fearful symmetry.” My neighborhood was at the edges of the transition from white to black. Straight lines could be drawn and the transitions were hard and clear. But such drawing wasn’t necessary. Everyone knew where the borders were. The number 12 city bus skirted these white/black borders, but never ventured directly across them leaving many African Americans “beyond the border,” with long walks—often blocks and blocks, in all kinds of weather—to the edge of whiteness, and passing in front of our house to catch their bus to town and to work.8
Apartheid of the Imagination
Poet Adrienne Rich, remembers:
This is white history…white hate crimes, white hate speech. I still try to claim I wasn’t brought up to hate. But hate isn’t the half of it. I grew up in the vast encircling presumption of whiteness—that primary quality of being which knows itself, its passions, only against an otherness that has to be dehumanized. I grew up in white silence that was utterly obsessional. Race was the theme whatever the topic.9
The “Vast Encircling Presumption of Whiteness:”
Playing Ball on Dynamite Hill
The encircling whiteness” about which Rich speaks was both powerful and terrifying in Fountain Heights. Across the street from the public Martin School, about two blocks from my house—unless you cut through the alley and a couple of back yards next to the black florists’ house—was the large Fountain Heights park with two baseball diamonds and room for football as well. By this time the park was rarely used for anything but sports and a lot of free play. It was not very well kept, and nothing like the suburban megaplexes of today. But it was open space and free, at least for us. The park had as its lower edge the border to the black streets and houses. Sometimes when we were playing ball black kids would edge the field waiting for an invitation to play. And if it was free play, unorganized by any league, they would often join in our games. This was the case one summer’s day on the lower and larger baseball field. White and black kids, most of them older than me, were enjoying a game of baseball, and not on teams divided by race, but mixed according to who could play which position and the fairness of the game. I played catcher with a mitt I used for all positions, even outfield. I remember vividly a disagreement at second base between my older brother, Jimmy, and another white player about whether the runner was safe or out. As things got heated and fists began to fly, Tyrone (I remember his name to this day), whom I assumed was the leader of the black players intervened and admonished these “two friends,” he said, to stop their fighting and play ball. And we did. It’s important to not make too much or too little of this reminiscence. It is too little to say the memory isn’t important. The memory is crucial—Tyrone’s name and his words, and the game itself. It is too much to imagine that this was a pocket of civil toleration in Fountain Heights. The park was not at all integrated. And any police patrol car could have stopped the game at any time and ordered the black players from the park, even arresting them at the slightest provocation. Whiteness was presumed, encircling and vast; this game, and others like it, was exceptional.
My Blue Bicycle
It was on the same lower field, but probably not the same game. I had parked my blue bicycle at the edge of the field—the fact that the bike was blue tells me as Jimmy’s hand-me-down, I was probably about 11 or 12 years old. At the end of the game, my bicycle was missing. I was told that a black kid had taken it and headed down the road into the black neighborhoods. Without hesitation I started after my bicycle and the kid who took it. As I advanced the street turned to a red clay road but I pressed on, asking adults I encountered, politely but firmly, if they had seen the kid and the bicycle. As I recall I got enough positive information to continue until I recovered my bike and went home. Again what is memorable and remarkable is that I had no hesitation and certainly no fear. I presumed that I could and would track down the bike, no matter how far I had to walk across the border, and that it would be returned. And it was. The second remarkable thing is that none of this could have been presumed if the situation had been reversed—a black kid searching for his stolen bike in the depths of the white neighborhoods. It is quite possible that the same result could have happened and his bike returned. But it could not, without danger and risk, be presumed. My memory is firm, I was not afraid and I was in little danger—such was our vast encircling presumption of whiteness.10
Going to Baba’s House
bell hooks tells this different story:
In the absence of the reality of whiteness, I learned as a child that to be “safe” it was important to recognize the power of whiteness, even to fear it, and to avoid encounter. There was nothing terrifying about the sharing of this knowledge as survival strategy; the terror was made real only when I journeyed from the black side of town to a predominantly white area near my grandmother’s house. I had to pass through this area to reach her place. Describing these journeys “across town” in the essay, “Homeplace: A Site of Resistance,” I remembered: “It was a movement away from the segregated blackness of our community into a poor white neighborhood. I remember the fear, being scared to walk to Baba’s, our grandmother’s house, because we would have to pass that terrifying whiteness—those white faces on the porches staring us down with hate. Even when empty or vacant those porches seemed to say danger, you do not belong here, you are not safe.”11
My Doppelganger and the Reality of White Privilege
A doppelganger literally means “double-goer.” That is to say, one’s “ghostly double,” not a reflection of one’s self but an other than one’s self who has an uncanny set of resemblances, but in my case, some significant and tragic differences as well. So from time to time as I have tried to understand racism and the southern apartheid of my youth, I have imagined having an African-American Doppelganger. My “double goer” would have lived in Fountain Heights like me, but across the border. He would now be a man of my age of 65, or near my age—add a few years and he could be Tyrone. I do not really know him, but I can surmise with some accuracy things about his life. We, of course lived on separate sides of the racial divide in Fountain Heights. I went to St. Paul’s parochial school downtown, and he most probably went to Carrie A. Tuggle school about two blocks from my house down 12th Court North, which was markedly separate from any white school in Birmingham, including St. Paul’s, and tragically unequal.12 I then went to John Carroll High School, a regional Catholic school that also during my time refused to admit black students, Catholic or not. My double, if he went to high school at all, most probably went to Parker. Even now, I can remember only two black high schools in Birmingham, Parker, the larger regional black high school and the much smaller Holy Family Catholic High run by a religious order in the western section of Ensley. Surely there must have been others, but to this day I do not know their names.
I went on to many years of college, seminary and graduate school, my Doppelganger probably did not. I had no trouble with the police—except for one instance, now legendary in my family, of mistaken identity—he probably did. My life had a normal and socially upward trajectory—no jail, no drugs, no violence—his probably did not.
I know that some of the black residents of Fountain Heights and its surrounding areas overcame the odds and with great courage and intelligence have thrived and contributed much to their societies—their country, and even to their city of Birmingham, which held so much back and took so much from them. But that’s just the point, they overcame great and unjust obstacles and odds. Many did not. I don’t know about my Doppelganger. But I do know that I was privileged in ways that he was not, no matter what his life trajectory has been.
The story of my Doppelganger, is also, in a way, the rest of my story—what happened to him because of me. I do not recall committing any overt and individual acts of racism in my years in Fountain Heights. I don’t remember taking directly anything that did not belong to me. But in terms of my privileged claim to always scarce or moderately scare resources and prospects, I received more than he did. I benefited at his expense. And that’s unjust.
My Doppelganger has the right to tell his own story—apart from me and from you. I hope that he has had or will have before he dies an opportunity to do that. I’ll never really know. And in the twisted ironies of injustice, I probably need his story more than he needs mine. I hope so anyway. For his sake
A Kind of Extortion
It is in this context of encircling and terrifying whiteness and its privileges that I want to think of justice and press the case for reparations for these terrible crimes. In Book 4 of the City of God, St. Augustine writes of the relationship between unjust governments and theft. And theft in any and all forms demands restitution and repair. The passage is worth quoting. When you hear it or read it think of Birmingham and all the other birminghams around our nation and throughout our world—all those institutional, and social, and cultural injustices that stole with impunity from people of color, from women, and from those whose sexual orientations and behavior have been different from the majority. At the same time remember that our greatest temptations and seductions are to aestheticize these tragedies, historicize and relativize our consciences, and to temporize justice’s demands for restitution.13
How like kingdoms without justice are to robberies
Justice being taken away, then, what are kingdoms but great robberies? For what are robberies themselves, but little kingdoms? The band itself is made up of men; it is ruled by the authority of a prince, it is knit together by the pact of the confederacy; the booty is divided by the law agreed on. If, by the admittance of abandoned men, this evil increases to such a degree that it holds places, fixes abodes, takes possession of cities, and subdues peoples, it assumes the more plainly the name of a kingdom, because the reality is now manifestly conferred on it, not by the removal of covetousness, but by the addition of impunity.14
Post Script 1
By 1963, no bombings in Fountain Heights or other Birmingham neighborhoods had been “solved” and no one convicted. An internal FBI memo in 1965 listed four men as the probable bombers of the Sixteen Street Baptist Church, Robert E. Chambliss, Thomas E. Blanton Jr., Bobby Frank Cherry, and Herman Cash. Chambliss, who had earned the nickname, “Dynamite Bob,” was convicted of murder in 1977, and died in prison in 1985. On May 17, 2000 Thomas E. Blanton, Jr., and Bobby Frank Cherry were indicted for the crime. May 1, 2001, 38 years after the killing of the “four little girls,” Thomas Blanton was convicted of four counts of first degree murder and sentenced to four life terms. Cherry was convicted of murder the following year and died in prison in 2004. Herman Cash died in 1994 and was never brought to trial.
Post Script 2
In October, 10-11, 2002, The School of Theology of the University of the South sponsored a symposium entitled “The Struggle for Racial Justice: From Sewanee to Birmingham: Memoir and Reminiscence.”15
One of the speakers was Birmingham’s legendary pastor and activist, the Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth.16 Reverend Shuttlesworth had carried the struggle against the racist majority of the city and its government, especially the infamous police commissioner, Eugene “Bull” Conner. Questioned about how he felt about Birmingham now that he was in his eighties, and after enduring so much there—beatings, arrests, bombings—and now many years away and having had such a fruitful ministry in Cincinnati, the Rev. Shuttlesworth said, simply, but firmly, “I love Birmingham.”
* * *
1This presentation was delivered in abbreviated form at a faculty panel at the University of the South, in Sewanee Tennessee, February 12, 2009. The panel convened for discussion on the occasion of a screening of the documentary “Traces of the Trade: A Story from the Deep North,” and presentations by the filmmakers, Katrina Browne and Juanita Brown. I have filled in the prose and made some additions, but the main contours of this reminiscence and the intentions of its convictions remain the same. It is published as “Dynamite Hill: Fountain Heights in the 1950’s: White Privilege in Mid-Century Birmingham.” Sewanee Theological Review, 53:2 (Easter 2010), pp. 127-135.
2For a documentary film portrayal of these events, see Spike Lee, 4 Little Girls; for a novelist’s, see Sena Jester Naslund, Four Spirits (New York: Harper Perennial, 2004).
3I borrow with acknowledgement Karl Fleming’s title of his “uncivil memoir” as a succinct and accurate description of being from Birmingham during these times. See Karl Fleming, Son of the Rough South: An Uncivil Memoir (New York: Public Affairs Books,
4For a courageous and engaging memoir of Birmingham’s turbulent racial history from the perspective of its privileged industrial, business, and cultural leaders—from “over the mountain” in Birmingham terminology—see Diane McWhorter’s Pulitzer Prize winning Carry Me Home: Birmingham Alabama: The Climatic Battle of the Civil Rights Revolution, (New York: Touchstone, 2001).
5A memoir and reminiscence recalls events that have been formative of character, both positively and negatively—with a moral slant, so to speak. More than facts are at stake. But rather deep interpretive meanings that can also deconstruct and unsettle. Being so unsettled can be both a risk and a gift. I have always found that remembering the Birmingham of my childhood, as I do now, though necessarily partial and certainly painful and tragic, has mostly been the latter.
6In his novel, Bombingham, Anthony Grooms writes: “It seemed the Birmingham Klan was too sophisticated to toss a rope over a tree limb. It preferred the blast and rumble of dynamite, or the flash of a gasoline bomb—so much so that Fountain Heights on the north side of the city, a white neighborhood where blacks were beginning to buy houses, had so many bombings and fires it was called Dynamite Hill. Bombings were so common that black people had nicknamed the city “Bombingham” ( New York: Ballantine, 2001), 22.
7Mark Gado, Bombingham, Chapter 3, “The City of Fear.” Available on-line at, True Crime Library. http://www.trutv.com/library.
8The blast that shook my house was probably the beginning of what came to be called “block-busting” in our neighborhood—both figuratively in terms of raced based real estate values, and literally in terms of the destruction.
9Adrienne Rich, “The Distance Between Language and Violence” in What is Found There: Notebooks on Poetry and Politics. New York: W. W. Norton, 1993, pp. 181; 181-189
10I also would not want to leave the impression that my growing up in Fountain Heights was generally fearful at all for us, or that we did not play outside with abandon, from morning to night. From what I could see many black children did too, mostly but not always within their own “borders”. But our situations were different. We were quite safe almost all of the time, they were not. And finally, for both black and white, our innocence was taken away from us all.
11bell hooks (Gloria Watkins), “Representations of Whiteness in the Black Imagination,” in Killing Rage: Ending Racism, (New York: Henry Holt: 1995), 45-46.
12do not mean to say that Tuggle school was always unsuccessful in the education of black children in those days, or now in the same place it was then at 412 12th Court North. But its resources were less and its prospects more difficult. Carrie A Tuggle was a legendary social worker and educator who fought for a safe and good education for African American children in early twentieth century Birmingham. She now is honored in the Alabama Women’s Hall of Fame.
13Add to these our penchant to overcomplicate what we do not want to admit. However complex, strategies and policies of restitution require more than anything else, moral conviction, moral will, and a flexible imagination.
14Aurelius Augustine, The City of God, Translated by Marcus Dods (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1871, and (New York: Modern Library Edition, 1993), Book IV, 112-113, and also available at New Advent web site. In a more contemporary vein, John Rawls makes the same point: “…Unjust social arrangements are themselves a kind of extortion, even violence, and consent to them does not bind.” And Rawls goes further: “…The evil man aspires to unjust rule precisely because it violates what independent persons would consent to in an original position of equality, and therefore its possession and display manifest his superiority and affront the self-respect of others. It is this display and affront which is sought after. What moves the evil man is the love of injustice: he delights in the impotence and humiliation of those subject to him and he relishes being recognized by them as the willful author of their degradation.” John Rawls, A Theory of Justice (Cambridge: Harvard: 1971), 343; 439.
15Presentations at this symposium included a history of the integration crisis at The School of Theology by Don Armentrout of the school’s faculty, when all but one faculty member resigned over the refusal of the University to integrate the school in the early 1950’s, and personal reminiscences by former students, Rt. Rev. Duncan Gray, Jr., Rev James Fenhagen, Rev. Thomas Carson; a presentation by Diane McWhorter based on her Pulitzer Prize winning book, Carry Me Home; and an address by the Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth. Later in the year, John Seigenthaler, of the Kennedy Justice Department, the southern “Freedom Rides,” and the Nashville Tennessean spoke, as did Sewanee faculty member Scott Bates on his experiences of the Highlander Folk School in nearby Monteagle, Tennessee. Finally, students and faculty made a pilgrimage from Sewanee to Birmingham’s Civil Rights Museum at Kelly Ingram Park as well as to the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church. For a record, see The Sewanee Theological Review, “From Sewanee to Birmingham: The Struggle for Racial Justice” (Easter 2003) Volume 46: 2.
16For more, see Andrew M. Manis, A Fire You Can’t Put Out: The Civil Rights Life of Birmingham’s Reverend Fred Shuttlesworth (Tuscaloosa: The University of Alabama Press, 2001).