We kept quiet

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I ask myself all these years later why I kept quiet during much of the Civil Rights struggles, why I was so afraid to speak. The question was answered when I went home to Jackson, Mississippi, to read from my memoir last fall. People did not want to be reminded of our terrible treatment of African Americans in the ‘50s and ‘60s. We were past all that. This was the new south of Garden and Gun, bourbon tastings and pig roasts.

My friend Richard sent me a column by John Archibald from the Birmingham News, which brought it all back. If you go online, you will see, among the 86 comments, examples of the hate-filled speech Archibald deplores.

Daddy? Where were you in the war?

That phrase meant one thing in the U.S. and England after World War II. It meant something else in Germany.

Where were you? How … could you?

It was an indictment, an accusation. It’s no wonder many refused to ask it at all. Because many feared the answer.

And so it is with Birmingham. So it is with Alabama.

You can no longer discuss civil rights in Alabama – even in the midst of a 50th anniversary commemoration of civil rights landmarks – without complaints from whites who argue that merely talking about the past drags us into it.

They don’t want to go. Because they don’t want to know.

Daddy? Where were you in the war?

It is difficult to contemplate now. As it was then.

In September of 1963, just after the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church bombing killed those four little girls, Birmingham lawyer Chuck Morgan spoke famously to a downtown civic group. He would have to leave town after what he said.

“Who is really guilty?” he asked. “Each of us. … Every citizen who votes for the candidate with the bloody flag, every citizen and every school board member and school teacher 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 past several years to the popularity of hatred is at least as guilty or more so than the demented fool who threw that bomb.”

It was a profound speech that should have forced Birmingham to look at itself. The guilty, Morgan said, were those whose words fueled fear. It was those who cruelly joked and those whose laughter implied acceptance. It was those who acted too slowly or not at all, and those whose ability to look the other way distracted them from their own consciences.

Last week it was Birmingham lawyer and former U.S. Attorney Doug Jones who spoke to a civic group downtown. Jones, who earned his civil rights stripes prosecuting the last of the Sixteenth Street bombers, quoted Morgan to a group of young professionals at the Rotary Club.

Jones challenged them to learn the history of the city and state, to embrace it. It is a different world, to be sure, but there is still much to learn. And many reasons to learn it.

Because the lessons of our past are not limited to racial animosity. Our issues are not always so black and white that they show up in our skin.

Jones argued, among other things, that we must look at the words we use. In private. In public. And in politics.

The world we live in is poisoned by hate-filled speech, he said. It is awash in ranting emails and anonymous zealots who write words they would never say in public. Even our us-against-them political rhetoric borrows from the playbook of 1960s George Wallace.

“Use this as an opportunity to ratchet down the hate-filled rhetoric that is all too common in today’s world,” Jones said. “We have become a society in which issues are not debated with logic and reason, but with a war of words, threats and name-calling.”

Just like it was 50 years ago.

And that, I guess, is why I thought of that question:

Daddy? Where were you in the war?

I think I know the answer. The truthful answer, for Birmingham or Selma, Montgomery or Berlin, is that it really doesn’t matter where daddy might have been. Not now. Not at all.

All that matters now is what is in your heart, and what you do with your hands. All that really matters is that we don’t repeat our mistakes, that we don’t allow dangerous words to let fear take us where courage would not go.

Because in the end, long after we wage our own battles, others will ask a question of us.

Daddy? Where were you in the war?


John Archibald’s column appears Sundays, Wednesdays and Fridays in the Birmingham News, and all the time on al.com. Write him at jarchibald@al.com

3 responses »

  1. Thank you. Well said. Love, M

  2. It was an Anonymous writer (probabaly a woman) who wrote ” …we can respond differently to the tragedies of modern history. Our past is not our potential. In any hour, with all the stubborn teachers and healers of history who called us to our best selves, we can liberate the future. One by one, we can re-choose – to awaken. To leave the prison of our conditioning, to love, to turn homeward. To conspire (to conspire, from the latin, means “to breathe together”) with and for each other. Awakening brings its own assignments, unique to each of us, chosen by each of us. Whatever you may think about yourself, and however long you may have thought it, you are not just you. You are a seed, a silent promise. You are the conspiracy.”

    Our past can be a springboard for our potential. Thanks Norma for your ever lasting impressions and the truth. History does matter, especially if we don’t recreate it.

  3. I’ve been watching “The Abolitionists” on American Experience (PBS) and it is interesting to see the recalcitrance of the south in the face of the evils of slavery. Thanks for the necessary reminder of keeping this particular faith, Norma.



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