“Four little girls were killed in Birmingham yesterday. A mad, remorseful, worried community asks, ‘Who did it, who threw that bomb?’ The answer should be ‘We all did it.’ Every last one of us is condemned for that crime and the bombing before it and the ones last month, last year, a decade ago. We all did it.”
This past Sunday marked the fiftieth anniversary of another bloody and tragic Sunday, one that inspired civil rights lawyer Charles Morgan to make the speech that starts with these powerful lines. On September 15, 1963, just a couple of weeks after the massive March on Washington for Jobs and Justice, a member of the Ku Klux Klan bombed the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, killing four young girls: three 14 year-olds—Addie Mae Collins, Carole Robertson, and Cynthia Wesley—and 11 year-old Denise McNair. The bomber was initially convicted only of possessing dynamite, receiving a six-month sentence and a $100 fine. It took 14 years to bring him to justice: the case was reopened in 1971, and he was convicted and sentenced to life imprisonment in 1977.
The story of that bombing was a powerful motivator for Allison Myers, Southwest Region Director of the Center for Digital Storytelling (StoryCenter for short). Allison is spearheading our All Together Now civil and human rights project, a free national series of half-day Storied Sessions in ten cities across the U.S. This is the fourth in a series of blog posts that share voices from All Together Now. To apply to take part, or find out how to sponsor a workshop, please visit our web site. Even if there's not a workshop in your town, as they unfold over coming months you will be able to access the whole body of stories on our Cowbird.com All Together Now page and eventually, to add your own story.
Allison proposed the project to her fellow staff members as a way to honor this country’s civil rights movement legacy and narrow the generation gap through story and dialogue; and also as something that all StoryCenter staff members could contribute to and embrace. “People on staff care about this,” Allison said, “for at least two reasons. We all have shared values around social justice. How people act on that looks different depending on what they've experienced. But everybody believes that social justice is important to work toward. And from the story perspective, not everybody has had access to be able to create media, and that's where big conversations happen, where people who've had access get to influence more people. I'm not talking about empowering people or giving people voice, because they already have that, but giving them a space to tell a story and get it into a format where it has the opportunity for more people to hear it.”
When we asked what drew her to the project, Allison told a story.
“I was in graduate school in Colorado, and I had this really wonderful professor for a communications class called ‘Reel-to-real.’ We watched films and looked at how people have or don't have civil discourse on an interpersonal level, at a community level, on a business level, and at a government level. We talked about how media both reflects and influences society, particularly in relation to civility and public discourse. We watched Spike Lee's 4 Little Girls (a 1997 documentary film on the Birmingham bombing). I'm embarrassed to say, but I had ever heard of it before. I'm from Albany, Georgia, this little southwest Georgia town. It was mostly African American and white. At my high school I was a minority, so I would have thought that I would have known more about it. In high school I knew who Martin Luther King was, but I didn't know much about him.
“I was born in Birmingham in 1967 and my parents were seniors in college in 1963 at the University of Alabama. So when I see this film and I realize that it happened in Birmingham where my dad grew up, I just remember thinking, ‘Oh my God, how did something like that happen and I never heard about it and my parents never said anything about it?’ I had to leave the room during the discussion because I didn't know what to do with it. I kept thinking of my parents and the things that they’ve taught me about how you treat people and I couldn’t connect it with this information, this question. Did they know about it? Did they just not care about it? Were they too wrapped up in sorority and fraternity things and football games? I would like to know, but then I worry they might say, ’Yeah, we knew about it, but there was really nothing you could do about it.’ I don't know, and I don't really want to know.
“Part of the question that comes up is, ‘What would I have done?’ That's the other side of the question that I haven't really asked. What would I have done? Would I have done something? Would I have cared? I hope so. But when I hear those stories, that people can treat other human beings like that, I feel motivated to try to do something now.”
In a video that was making the rounds this anniversary week, on the day after the 1963 bombing, Charles Morgan delivers his speech to a group of white business leaders—a speech that generated so much animosity from opponents of racial equality that Morgan and his family had to leave town. Morgan’s subject resonated powerfully with Allison’s questions of responsibility and who should bear it.
“Birmingham,” he said, “it is a city where four little Negro girls can be born into a second-class school system, live a segregated life, ghettoed into their own little neighborhoods, restricted to Negro churches, destined to ride in Negro ambulances to Negro wards. Local papers on their front and editorial pages call for order and then exclude their names from obituary columns.
“And who is really guilty? Each of us. Each citizen who has not consciously attempted to bring about peaceful compliance with the decisions of the Supreme Court of the United States; every citizen who votes for the candidate with the bloody flag. Every citizen and every school board member and schoolteacher and principal and businessman and judge and lawyer who has corrupted the minds of our youth. Every person in this community who has in any way contributed during the last several years to the popularity of hatred is at least as guilty or more so than the demented fool who threw that bomb.”
Allison doesn’t think of herself as an activist, but she understands how stories inspire action by igniting empathy. “I've never marched for anything,” she said. “I've never protested anything in a public forum. The story I told you of first hearing about the bombing of the four little girls, I knew before then that I was white and privileged and my parents were professional and I had a lot of opportunities, but I don't think I could have articulated that, though I grew up being really aware that people didn't have as many opportunities as I had. My folks also taught us to not to exclude people and to make sure that you were kind and respectful to others, To be honest, what motivates me is empathy and compassion. I don't really feel like I can do big things. In the story work that we do, listening to people and being with them and helping them create these pieces feels like a small act of helping people say something that's important to them and giving them a tool to participate in those bigger discussions.”
This All Together Now project is StoryCenter’s gift to young people and elders across the nation. What does the legacy of fifty years ago—of the four little girls, the brave activists who integrated Birmingham, the allies like Charles Morgan who spoke out—mean to you today? How does your own story connect? Please join StoryCenter and our great partners—national partners the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, Southern Poverty Law Center, Color of Change, Equal Justice Society, International Museum of Women, Cowbird, and CommunisPR; and local partners Alternate Roots, American Friends Service Committee, Denver, History Colorado, Coloradans for Immigrants Rights, Greater Phoenix Urban League, DC Public Library, Painted Bride Art Center, Rosa Parks Museum, Warm Cookies of the Revolution, Elizabeth City Alumnae Chapter Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, AARP Pasquotank County Chapter, Elizabeth City Pasquotank County Community Relations Commission, and Elizabeth City Hope Group—in this wonderful project. All together now!