IT'S SUNDAY, Sept. 15, l963. The cool of the Birmingham morning is slowly surrendering to the heat.
I am 10. I am standing by the ripped screen door, waiting to walk to Sunday school with my older brothers, Alfred Lloyd and Archie Lee. In the next room, Dad is lying in bed on the quilts my mother and grandmother made a long time ago. He's watching one of the Sunday morning religious programs and smoking a Camel cigarette. On my birthday five weeks ago he gave me a shiny new 50-cent piece.
My mother is standing at the kitchen sink, trying to wash the black Griffin liquid shoe polish from her hands. Her name is Dear. She will go to church later. Occasionally she glances at three pairs of not quite dry leather shoes as she hums a gospel tune she has been rehearsing for days. Whenever the choir director asks Dear to lead the singing, she displays a mild displeasure, but we all know how much this moment in the limelight means to her.
Dear has lost her job as a cleaning woman for white people because things are so bad in Alabama now between blacks and whites. During elections, Gov. George C. Wallace's face grimaces from posters on every other tree and telephone pole, complementing the littered landscape. But there is another agitator I feel even greater contempt for because he is black, like me. That man is a new young preacher in town, and he has been talking about civil rights and otherwise frightening people, black and white. He is named Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.
Many black people fear and hate Martin Luther King. They resent him. When the buses roll up in front of my school to take children to the marches, they are met by angry adults. Some of these people have been fired by the white people they work for. Even more worry that he will bring down terrible violence on us.
Dear is not an Uncle Tom, but she is accustomed like other blacks to her lot of servitude. It angers her that Rev. King has brought his cause to Birmingham and she resents his gall in criticizing white folk publicly. She knows how things work. Last Christmas, she yanked me away from a department-store window where a store employe was changing a mannequin's clothes. Black men in Birmingham could get into trouble for watching such a thing.
I too have learned the ways of my world. When whites call me nigger, I hasten to answer. If we have to go around to the back of the restaurant for food or drink, I don't think twice about it. Even when Sgt. Jack of Police Car 49 wants to rub the nappy hair on my head for "good luck," I acquiesce.
Now I am standing by the ripped screen door in the heat. Here in the Heart of Dixie, there's not much distinction between early autumn and midsummer, and the unending battle with the heat, flies and dust rages on.
My two brothers are scurrying through the house, adding last-minute touches to their Sunday-go-to-meeting attire and trying not to anger Dear further -- we are already late. It would serve us well to leave now, even if the shoes are not quite dry or our hair is not combed or we have not shined our faces with Vaseline to moisten the dry, white condition of the skin known as "ash" among darker-skinned blacks.
The walk to our church, New Salem Baptist, is only a few blocks, but we will never get there -- for all that Dear will drive us onwards with her voice, peeking through the tattered curtains to see us fascinated with the bumblebees in the honeysuckle bush and shouting: "If ya'll don't get away from there, it's going to be too wet to plow." What she means is that the tears we'll shed after a good whipping would soak the earth.
A huge noise cracks the air. Dear's anger gives way to terror. Archie, my oldest brother, rushes us away from the explosion, back toward the house and Dear's open arms. We run inside and huddle on the floor in the corner. Dad is up. He is going out. He orders us not to open the door for anyone but him. Dear holds us to her heart, rocking and kissing us, reassuring us that "it's going to be all right after while."
We watch my father leave, and wait for "after while."
That while has passed now, and as I look back as a man on the boy of that that Sunday morning, I realize there is something to be said about the comforts of ignorance. I had no idea what it meant to be "black." I was colored, I was a Negro. Being "black" was some obscure idealistic approach to restructuring the thinking of colored folk who lived in the thrall of Police Commissioner Eugene "Bull" Conner, Mayor Albert Boutwell, Gov. Wallace and the omnipotent Jim Crow, an institution that could not be put asunder.
I had no idea of the problems that being "black" would bring after the second emancipation in 1964, with the Civil Rights Act. Like my parents, I believed my immediate family had fared well physically under segregation. Before my 10th birthday, I had witnessed death and house burnings and had imbibed countless horror tales of lynchings, and there was the usual harassment from whites and my father's occasional beatings by the Birmingham police. The sound of gunshots, day and night, was part of our lives. But we had fared well, compared to others.
For many blacks in Birmingham, the mention of the name Martin Luther King invoked visions of violence of incalculable proportions. A white man had drowned my eight-year-old cousin at the lake while he and his brother searched for tadpoles to complete a school science project. The man was questioned and released. My cousin's parents blamed his death on the racial tensions caused by the civil rights movement.
Some of those who had been fired by white employers found new jobs or got help from their churches, but these were poor people already and their poverty was increasing because of Martin Luther King. This fanned the flames of their hatred for him.
It is written that a prophet is never accepted in his own land, and for Rev. King, it was not until well into the civil rights movement that he won the confidence of a large sector of the black population in Birmingham.
On that Sunday morning, however, that time had not yet come for Dear. She believed Rev. King's vision was cloudy, that he was blinded by his own zeal, that he threatened our whole way of life.
For me it was a way of life that made it possible for us to brag at school about the fancy bathrooms our mommas cleaned. We strutted in the old clothes the white ladies so graciously presented to our mothers, who would not dare insult them by refusing. The power behind the word "no" was completely unknown to them. But things were going to change, whether they liked it or not.
Throughout my childhood, early every morning, Dear would leave our $22-a-month apartment to take three buses over the mountain to the white neighborhood where she cleaned floors, toilets and children, whose names I knew from her stories but whom I had never met. Dear was one of hundreds of black women who huddled on the street corners on those long-ago mornings, waiting for the No. 11 bus that would carry them far from our miserable community to their cleaning jobs. I often got up with Dear, and Dad and I watched the sparks shooting in every direction from the top of the electrical buses as they sputtered away.
At the end of the day, Dear would come back with those stories and sometimes the clothes. Once a year, a judge brought us a bag of pig ears and pig feet and pig chitterlings or whatever discarded parts from the slaughtered beast his family deemed repulsive. Dear and my grandma seldom sat to eat with us and the men of the house. They stood in the doorway until we had our fill, and then they ate whatever was left. Sometimes Dear cried when she didn't get enough.
After she lost the cleaning job, Dear managed to land a position in a ladies' clothing store in the largest shopping center in the city. Her wages went up a bit, so we moved from our one-room flat that seemed to flood every time it rained heavily. Still, she was not free from being addressed as "gal" by whites and from having to say "yes, ma'am," and "no, ma'am" to white children.
As if it were not enough for blacks in Birmingham to live outside the mainstream of society, the antics of this new young preacher in town now threatened our safety more than ever before. Was the road to that much-heralded promised land to be paved with ebony bodies stretching across every inch of this racist city?
On that Sunday morning, we waited for my father, waited for word about the enormous explosion. Dear couldn't stand it. She decided to go out and find him. When she reached the door, Dad came in.
"Who is it this time?" Dear asked.
He didn't know. The neighbors didn't know.
We gathered around the radio and tuned to one of the two black stations in the city. It wasn't long before the grim news came across the air waves that the 16th Street Baptist Church had been blown up during Sunday school. Four black girls near my age lay dead in the pile of bricks and rubble.
Dear wept and Dad vented his anger over one more senseless act of racial violence. Undoubtedly, he said, the perpetrators would go unpunished. Once again the acts of an idealistic Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. had caused the mighty hand of Jim Crow to unleash its relentless power.
Martin Luther King, one black man's messiah, another black man's satan.
Of course, we had not yet come to believe that life could be, if not better, at least different for us. That belief would come first to the young and the poor.
Chris McNair, whose daughter died in the church bombing and who now serves in the Alabama legislature, said he remembers attending the mass meetings at the black churches in Birmingham in the early '60s, and only occasionally seeing teachers and other black professionals.
Jessie Champion, a radio-news reporter in Birmingham, said that early in the civil rights movement, young blacks warmly received the idea of civil disobedience, but the older ones were slow to act, largely out of fear of losing their jobs.
It's hard to remember, more than two decades later, what things were like then. Certainly there are few fond memories of life in that community in the foothills of Appalachia, and the only thing good about the good old days is that they are gone for good.
Today my brother Archie Lee is a waiter and Alfred Lloyd is an auto mechanic, both of them in Houston. Dear and Dad live outside Birmingham and are quite content with their lives. My father loves nothing more than to have Dear read to him as they drift in their outboard motorboat across McKay's Lake.
Nowadays, when I make one of my rare visits, Dear and Dad and I often discuss how foolish we were for ever doubting Rev. King's intentions. The day he was assassinated was the first time I had seen my father cry. He wasn't ashamed. Millions of other blacks in Birmingham and America wept with him.