Birmingham Blues Then and Now

by Bill Swain

Revolutionary Worker #1161, August 4, 2002, posted at

September 15, 1963, Birmingham, Alabama. A bomb ripped through the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church, which had been an organizing center for the Civil Rights struggle. In the rubble of the ruined church, four young girls were found dead: Cynthia Wesley, Addie Mae Collins, Denise McNair, and Carole Robertson, ages 11 to 14.

Officials in the police department, the FBI, and other government agencies knew this was the bloody handiwork of the Ku Klux Klan. For decades, the KKK had carried out all kinds of terror against Black people in Birmingham. There were 40 bombings between the end of WW2 and 1963.

Four Klansmen were prime suspects: Robert Chambliss, Bobby Frank Cherry, Herman Frank Cash, and Thomas Blanton Jr. But none of them were arrested and charged, even though the FBI had lots of evidence to implicate them. The case was officially closed in 1965 and wasn't re-opened until 1971. Chambliss was finally convicted of murder in 1977. Cash died in 1994 without ever being charged. Blanton was convicted in 2001 and sentenced to life in prison.

On May 22, 2002, Bobby Cherry was finally convicted of the murders of the four girls and received a life sentence. This conviction came almost 40 years after the bombing--even though authorities had evidence of Cherry's guilt and he openly talked about his involvement in the bombing. (See RW#1153)

Government prosecutors and other spokesmen for the power structure say the guilty verdict on Cherry shows the system "works" and that people can get justice in the courts. But in reality, this case shows how pervasive and deep-rooted white supremacy and national oppression are under this system.

RW reporter Bill Swain went to Birmingham to cover the trial of Bobby Cherry and spent hours talking to people about how they felt about the long-overdue verdict--and about life for Black people in Birmingham, in 1963 and today.


I went into the courtroom and sat down, and turned and saw Bobby Cherry look over at his supporters. Then he sat down, calmly and with a smug look on his face. No striped orange suit for him, no shackles, no vicious attitude from the judge, none of the racist shit you see in Amerikkka's courtrooms when a Black person is being tried, tried for much less. As I walked out of the courthouse that day, all kinds of people were standing around before they left for home. And people wanted to talk.

I spoke to a woman who never lived in Birmingham but came to the trial because she was outraged about the whole way the FBI and the government watched with cold disregard, the pain of the families whose loved ones were killed or maimed 40 years ago--whose calls for investigations and justice were put off time after time.

During the trial I met so many people who wanted to speak out, to talk about life in Birmingham-- what it was like 40 years ago and what it's like now. So a few weeks after Cherry was finally convicted, I went back to the city to hear their stories, to provide a way for their voices to be heard.


From the moment we got there to the time we left, one thing became so clear: what happened on September 15, 1963 and all the terror that happened before and after against Black people there remains deep in the souls of Black people in Birmingham. And the guilty verdict against Bobby Cherry after almost 40 years leaves a deep burning feeling inside the hearts of the people--a feeling that this system will never deliver justice to Black people, not in 1963, not in 2002!

When we got to Birmingham, we drove to the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church. As I walked along the street, I pictured this corner in 1963, filled with thousands of youth facing off against racist brutal sheriffs, vicious dogs and water hoses. People had proudly told me how back then the youth would get arrested, go home and tell their parents, "We were in jail today fighting for freedom."

I walked by the side of the church where the bomb went off and thought about what people had told me -- about the horror they felt when the bomb went off at the church, then people running screaming, then the discovery of the bodies of the four little girls.

We went to the church office and gave the secretary and minister the RW articles about Birmingham (#1153). Then we went across the street and talked to volunteers at the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute.

"The Things We Went Through"

I asked an 82-year-old Black man to tell me about his experiences. He looked right at me and told me some things I will never forget:

"I lived near here. Like that park [Kelly Ingram Park where many civil rights rallies were held]--I could run through there, walk through there but I couldn't sit on the benches or drink water from the fountains. I was a boy here in the '30s and we were starving. We were starving in this city here. To maintain parity, the farmers wouldn't bring food to the market, they would bury the beef or pork and leave fruit and vegetables in the field. And in the '50s it was rough. The police would come in, kick our doors in and go through our house even if our mothers were dressing or undressing. The police would drive through our neighborhoods with shotguns in their hands, standing on the running boards to intimidate us. On the 4th of July, the Klan would come over to our neighborhood and would explode some kind of bomb, make a lot of noise. This was for intimidation. Those are the things we went through.

"It was tough here. I was up the street one block and I saw a Black man on a Sunday morning. The post office was made of marble, and on Sunday morning white people and their families would come up and want to see that post office and take a look. That was in about 1933. What happened was there was this Black man--I'm not sure if he had that sickness where you are unsteady, you stagger. The white people were standing marveling at the building. Looked like he came up wobbling, he might have been drunk, I don't know. The white policeman beat him with a blackjack, and the Black man was like in slow motion-- he just slowly, slowly went down. The cop said, `Stand up, n***er.' I ran home crying, and to this day I don't know whether he killed him or not. But all the white people were standing around grinning. I have never forgotten that, never gotten over it. And I went to WW2 and Korea but have never felt as though I am a first class citizen of this country. I never have and never can, not for what I have gone through in this city.

"And I used to wonder sometimes when I would hear the chimes running down from 5 Points [a neighborhood] where the rich white people lived -- how could it be with the church bells ringing so beautifully, when it was so bad down here in the valley. I just couldn't understand it, all those churches up there, but nobody said anything about how we were treated. That always bothered me. We were so unsophisticated we didn't realize that these people were the ones who ran these people down here--the Bull Connors* to kick us in the behind. Our mothers would have to go to work up there and make 50 cents or a dollar a day, working in their kitchens....

"And today, what has changed? Very little has changed, I mean when we go to a restaurant, we can go to almost any restaurant you want to and not be insulted like we were before. But now, you still tighten up a little bit when you are in there when it's all white, you know, because you wonder how they feel about it."

Growing up in Bombingham

We left the institute and walked up the street to my favorite soul food restaurant. As I was eating chicken and greens, a man I had discussed the RCP's Draft Programme with a few months ago came in. He said:

"When the Sixteenth Street [church] was bombed I was 14 years old and had aspirations to go to college and make a good life for myself. But somehow you can't do that being Black in America in Bir- mingham. It had a devastating impact psychologically upon teenagers with aspirations of going to college. I mean there are bombings, your life is just threatened every day. How can you really study when there's a lot of racism going on around you? There were bombs being set not just at the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church, but there were bombs being set in our neighborhoods. We heard the bombs on the next street from where I lived. And there was a community patrol. My dad had to get up in the middle of the night and go with others and guard the street we lived on for fear that someone was planting a bomb somewhere.

"So any teenager or young child would be devastated growing up in an environment of racism like that. So I left Birmingham to go up North to go to college. I went there to get education without worrying about a bomb being set somewhere or the police beating you when they see you walking down the street by yourself. My cousin was killed by a police; he was just gunned down by a police officer...all they had to say was he [my cousin] was selling drugs, resisting arrest, anything. I grew up at a time when racism was on a rampage, so that's why I had to leave here. Lots of my friends had to leave.

"After the Sixteenth Street bombing, there was some rioting.... We couldn't go to the police department and say `Look, our church has been bombed' because we figured they were in on the bombing. That's how devastating, horrifying it was. I don't think anything could compare to living in a situation like this. You couldn't go to the authorities of the city or of the state you live in.

"I saw Bull Connor ordering the police to put the dogs and the fire hoses on people. I was 14 years old and out in the crowd demonstrating. I got wet but not in the direct hit from the hoses. I felt proud that we stood up no matter how hard it was going to be to get those rights. We knew it was going to take that. Nobody is going to give you your rights without some type of suffering.

"Racism is still here but it has gotten better. You can demonstrate now without being attacked by dogs or the fire hoses. But racism resides in the real estate industry, in the school system in the sense that our schools are not adequately funded. In any industry, like in the automobile industry, you will find less Blacks. In the construction industry, the white contractors get the bids to do the work. I know someone who paid rent for 40 years because he was denied a mortgage, a veteran from the Army. I am a veteran and I was always denied a Veterans Administration loan. Right now I am still trying to buy a home and I'm 50 years old."

I walked out of the restaurant and started talking to a Black man in front of a store. He told me why he thinks it took 40 years to finally bring Cherry to trial:

"That was an era back then when bombing was seen as legal because they were fighting the people who wanted some liberation, who wanted to come out of the old status quo. So the racists did that to reinforce the old thinking. The FBI claimed they had no evidence and they couldn't prosecute. With all the bombings in the past, it was a `legal' thing. It wasn't just a bunch of poor people in the Klan, it was the powers involved. The KKK did it because they knew the powers were on their side. Otherwise they wouldn't have done it. So the powers couldn't come back and prosecute them."

"A Lot Has Not Changed"

The next day we drove up a long hill past lots of closed down factories to a large housing project. It was hot, and lots of people were sitting outside their apartments. They all had lots to tell about this city.

A young woman walking to her car looked at the RW articles and photos and smiled--happy that the Birmingham conviction was being covered. As her kids piled into her van, she said:

"It is evident there is still racism in Birmingham. A lot has not changed for Blacks, it is hard to get those top priority jobs, regardless of your education. That's just how it is here. I've learned that. To me, the white people here, they have a voice...that's just the way it is. Even in the schools, I have honor roll students but it does not matter as far as what colleges they can go to. The racism here is very intense still."

Referring to her teenage daughter, she went on: "Her school, so much damage, they have roaches, rats, the building, they not fixing it up. But those white kids get brand new schools, brand new equipment, computers--these children need them too. They're not getting them. Those white schools, they hardly need the things they are getting and they are getting them abundantly. Our kids are getting the old stuff. Our kids deserve just as much. These predominantly white schools in Birmingham have beautiful gymnasiums and auditoriums. Our children can only think about having this when they go to college.

"And racism is on my job. I am a bank teller. At work, there are certain people who can wear attire that we cannot wear. One race of color can wear it and nothing is ever said. We can't wear sleeveless shirts, open toe shoes. But if somebody white wears it, nothing is ever said the whole day. But if I come in with it, I am sent home immediately and have to change right then. Also, if whites come in late, nothing is ever said and they will get paid, but if I come in late they will dock me."

Deep Anger

We left the projects, drove to the Juneteenth festival at Kelly Ingram Park. I sold a few papers and walked up to a couple of young Black guys in front of the institute. They were quite animated when I asked them about the verdict. One said, "Why he got life now? He lived a lifetime before he got this lifetime sentence. He lived his life for 40 years before this. If that would have been me, I would have been caught in a matter of minutes and I probably would have got the death penalty. And right now, in Birmingham, they got us fooled about how we going to make money and how we are going to economically provide. Right now they have torn down the projects near the high school. Where the projects were, they are building condominiums and lofts. That verdict was a token, they were so many more people that got so much more involvement, it was like a token. Now they say they can't open up no more [cases] against nobody else. Them two aren't the only two did it."

A young Black woman, wearing a hat that said, "Sisters in the Struggle," was sitting on a wall, talking with my friend who was showing her the RW . When I asked her a few questions, a big smile came across her face. She said:

"I am not originally from Birmingham and didn't know much about the bombing until I moved here. Now in the early 1900s, when a lot of Black people were getting hung, nobody went to jail for that. And there would have been a lot more governors in jail. My feeling is we can't stop with him [Cherry]; it should have been a lot more people. Think about all the Black people that was hung from trees, all the people that died and nobody went to jail for that. Think about how many Black people are in jail right now for simple crimes. And racism here today--look at the seatbelt check and the license check. They stopping all the Black communities, but hardly go into the white communities and do the seatbelt check and things like that... Now, that's racial profiling. My brother gets stopped every time, and is going in and out of jail for not having insurance."

I talked to three African-American teenage women who go to Parker High School. I told them about how Parker emptied out day after day in 1963 to protest racism. They smiled and said, "We know about that." Then they told me about how the teachers don't teach that history. One of them said, "The teachers said a little about 1963 but didn't really get into it. Not to me they didn't. What has me fired up is that with all the stuff that happened back then, teachers sit back and...don't want to think about it. They don't talk about it the way they should."

Before we left the city we got a chance to reconnect with a 50-year-old Black woman who had discussed the Draft Programme with us. She told us about her experiences growing up in Birmingham, how she remembers moving from her seat for white people on the buses and being part of the civil rights struggle. Today she still feels the weight of racism and white supremacy, especially in the lives of her grandchildren. She said youth living around her had closely followed the case of Bobby Cherry and many had participated in the protests to demand Cherry be put on trial. In the days before the verdict, she said the youth had told her more than once, "If he is not found guilty, we're going to get it on, it's on."


As dusk descended on Birmingham and we began to drive through the streets away from Sixteenth Street Baptist Church, I reflected back to when I first visited the city a year ago to take out and discuss the RCP Draft Programme with people. I remember stopping by a convenience store and as I left the store a Black man and I started talking. He needed a ride, so he got into the car and began talking about Bull Connor riding through the Black neighborhoods in his tank. He talked about police brutality and the murder of Black people that went on without the powers even thinking twice about it. He talked about all the racism and segregation. I told him about the Draft Programme and how a new revolutionary society would be able to organize and unite the people to get rid of things like white supremacy and racism. His eyes lit up, he turned to me and said, "You have come to the right place!"

We had learned a lot on this return visit to Birmingham. And as I looked out the window to the dark gray mountains that surround the city, I thought of all the stories people had told me and said to myself, "Yes, we did come to the right place."

This article is posted in English and Spanish on Revolutionary Worker Online
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