Our one stop off the highway, which was the site of the Anniston bus burning, was an innocuous spot, with fireflies flashing in gardenias.
Oh, how I looked forward to Birmingham. How excited I was to roll through its darkened streets–to see the sketchy warehouses, the ugly brick vistas of UAB, the glowing Vulcan statue (of Greek, not Star Trek mythology). The familiarity promised relief.
This was the hardest part of the trip.
We started out on Tuesday morning with a tour of the Birmingham ghetto. Ensley is a terrifying place, even in the daytime. Abandoned steel factories tear up the landscape like rusty ghosts, and the storms that went through the area last month left some houses collapsed upon themselves. Working in Affordable Housing Division at Gulfcoast Legal, I’ve been around Section 8 projects, but the ones in Ensley are cordoned off, military-style. We made jokes about gated communities. One of the students quietly remarked, “They’re not trying to keep people out, they’re trying to keep them in.”
You have to understand, this is my home. To only show the worst parts of it–the most shameful–hurt almost physically. It’s not all fire hoses and German shepherds turned on children; it’s not all piles of metal trash heaped in neighborhoods that highways cut to shambles. It’s not, I swear. In the spring, the Japanese cherry trees bloom, and azaleas light up the streets in pink. That old swimming pool where we used to turn ourselves to prunes in high school still remains unreasonably warm in the summer. Friends, old and new, huddle around the fire at Parkside for my Christmas visits. In the fall, my kids–who no longer remember their preschool teacher–play in the Red Mountain Park.
Visiting Mountain Brook, the wealthiest Birmingham community, after Ensley would have lit a fire under us. Students who saw it would never have forgotten the sting of economic disparity. But the bus driver got lost on the way, and we didn’t have time for neighborhood comparisons.
Instead, we headed to the Birmingham Civil Rights Museum, Kelly Ingram Park, and the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church.
Listen, I can’t walk around Kelly Ingram. There are statues of German Shepherds there, and bronze children, life-size, frozen in fear.
Sixteenth Street Baptist Church was the site where a Klansman planted a bomb in women’s bathroom, which killed four children, 14 and 13-year-old girls:Addie Mae Collins, Cynthia Wesley, Carole Robertson and Denise McNair–on September 15, 1963. I was born on the same day 25 years later.
I remember crying the first time I visited the church in college, but I was doing better this time–until a USF student made a sharp remark to me when I inadvertently interrupted her conversation.
Emotions run high with the stress, and I ended up crying for two hours, even after the aforementioned student handed me a tissue in a very nice manner.
And I don’t mean the delicate, “I’m-just-so-sensitive” tearing up that happens during political campaigns or watching Armageddon. I’m talking about deep, body-wracking sobs, with embarrassing quantities of tears and snot. It was not pretty. I wandered around blearily in search of a bathroom, but found some stairs instead, where I was hoping to have a nice, rewarding crying session. But that was not to be, as other students also became lost in their bathroom-finding quest. All I wanted was just half an hour alone, please, by the Maker, Buddha, and Tom Cruise, give me just an half an hour, God, those kids died here…
I continued my tearful journey all the way to the other church, where a group of very accomplished gospel singers sang Freedom Songs and “testified” about their experiences in the Children’s March and other aspects of the Civil Rights Movement in Birmingham. I was in serious danger of becoming dehydrated, when it occurred to me that at this point, I was no longer crying in sadness, but because I was tired, stressed, and cranky. More pathetically, I wanted someone to notice that I was tired, stressed, and cranky, and feel sorry for me. After two trips to just lock myself in the bathroom for a few minutes and some self-reflection, I decided to quit being a baby and sing the darn songs with everyone else, joining in with “We Shall Overcome.”
We swayed, hands locked, and I was no longer crying.