In the 1950s, Atlanta and Birmingham were about the same size, with about the same population, problems and promise, John Archibald points out in his book Shaking the Gates of Hell: A Search for Family and Truth in the Wake of the Civil Rights Revolution. But then, Atlanta fashioned itself the city “too busy to hate,” while Birmingham, “as the world would learn, was not that busy.”
I told Archibald I would reference that line, crediting him, of course, after he repeated it in a speech during the recent National Society of Newspaper Columnists conference in that Alabama city, his home base, because it was both ruefully funny and soul-crushingly tragic — and most of all, because it provides a too accurate view of a cycle that continues, one you don’t have to travel to Birmingham to observe.
Those at the conference got a chance to witness the roots and results of what hate did to Birmingham, how it labeled the city and hobbled its progress, during a visit to the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute. Unfortunately, those who most need to learn its lessons would never have the sense or the courage to set a foot inside.
The museum certainly does not shy away from the horror, including everything about that Sunday morning, Sept. 15, 1963, when bombs methodically placed by Klansmen murdered Cynthia Wesley, Carole Robertson and Addie Mae Collins — all 14 years old — and 11-year-old Denise McNair at the 16th Street Baptist Church.
Exhibits and artifacts provide the history that proves the routine ordinariness of what happened that day.
They chronicle the violence woven into the daily lives of the Black residents of the neighborhood that became known as Dynamite Hill. Those pioneers were Black strivers who would go on to make history, but who were resented by the whites who felt they owned the neighborhood, owned humanity itself.
The museum recounts details many may not know, like the stories of Virgil Ware, 13, and Johnny Robinson, 16, two Black boys shot and killed that same day in September, one by a white boy who served probation for his crime and another by law enforcement. Police, often complicit or absent for the violence of whites, were more concerned about the protest of African American citizens than the depredations that made their anger justified and righteous.
Birmingham’s whites were steeped in privilege, painstakingly written into a state Constitution that elevated white supremacy. Some whites planted the bombs, others tacitly supported the violence, and still others realized the unfairness of the written and unwritten rules but stayed silent. The few who spoke up were swiftly punished or ostracized for questioning an oppressive way of life — and, too often, death — for the Black citizens who wanted only to live freely and completely.
I was still thinking about the exhibits, the photos and oral histories, as the country marked the anniversary of white supremacist violence that walked through the door of another Black church, Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, S.C., on June 17, 2015.
It was an event closer to my Charlotte, North Carolina home, and closer still because I had connections to several of the victims — as will all of us as the killings continue. The then-21-year-old white man, who sat and prayed with worshippers at Mother Emanuel before opening fire, was fueled by the racist ideology that blames Black people for everything wrong in his own or any white person’s life. He could not find the will to improve himself, but he wasn’t too busy to hate, and to act on it.
I was thinking of Birmingham as the news reported conspiracies about replacement, with stories like the recent arrests of 31 men in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, foiling, according to law enforcement, a plan to riot at a Pride in the Park gathering. It wasn’t keen investigation that revealed the plot, according to reports, but a tip from a “concerned” citizen and quick action from police who did their jobs, this time.
The men’s faces were obscured with white balaclavas, an almost too perfect metaphor for the white sheets Ku Klux Klan cowards would sometimes use to hide themselves, to avoid responsibility for the things they claimed to be proud of.
Just as then, there are some who would stay silent, or at least downplay just what it means for America when grown men travel from all around the country to rain hate-fueled mayhem on fellow Americans for merely being.
These little men — in Idaho or Buffalo or Charleston — see conspiracies everywhere, and more than anything fear not having all the power in ways so similar to those whites in Alabama, the ones who killed for fear of losing one scrap of it.
These modern-day descendants of the racist cowards of the past use labels claiming patriotism and pride and heritage, when true patriots were and are in plain sight, working for equality and liberty and all those ideals written but unfulfilled in America’s founding documents.
One of those civil rights heroes honored in the institute, the Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth, co-founder of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, has his name on the Birmingham airport and a human rights award bestowed by the institute each year. It’s a wonder he lived to 89 years after the close calls, the beatings, the attempts on his life.
There have always been plenty of heroes, which is why a visit to the Institute, or to any museum that offers unvarnished American history, is more triumphant than tragic. There is often that mix when the truth is told, as gains never occur without struggle.
That’s why Juneteenth, celebrated for the second time as a federal holiday this past weekend, is more than symbolic. It’s a holiday for all Americans, part of the story this country must tell about itself, how justice delayed and denied did not stop progress.
This country has gone down this road before, and it was a rough one, with too many Americans not being too busy to hate and others either too busy or distracted or afraid to do anything about it.
That trip to Birmingham was a balm but also a warning, as those who would dismantle a multiracial democracy, with room for all, seem to be gaining volume and ground.
Mary C. Curtis has worked at The New York Times, The Baltimore Sun, The Charlotte Observer, as national correspondent for Politics Daily, and is a senior facilitator with The OpEd Project. Follow her on Twitter @mcurtisnc3.