Although she was a fourth-grader in 1963, Condoleezza Rice was old enough to be an eyewitness to the violence and turmoil that afflicted Birmingham, Alabama. In her book “Extraordinary, Ordinary People: A Memoir of Family,” the former secretary of state and national security adviser recounts the events that led to Birmingham becoming known as “Bombingham.”
Bull Connor’s dogs and fire hoses. Rice describes how Eugene “Bull” Connor, commissioner of public safety, unleashed police dogs and fire hoses on unarmed, peaceful protesters at Kelly Ingram Park in downtown Birmingham. “Bull Connor even brought ‘irregulars’ from the backwoods of Alabama to do the dirty work that even the police would not do,” Rice writes.
A.G Gaston Motel bombed. A prominent African-American businessman, Arthur George Gaston operated several business interests in Birmingham and played a key role in the Birmingham civil rights struggle that climaxed in 1963. In May, a hotel named after Gaston was bombed by the Ku Klux Klan in an attempt to assassinate Martin Luther King, who had vacated the city just hours before and was not at the hotel. This bombing resulted in a full-scale riot and a march to Kelly Ingram Park. Rice writes that the next day her family drove to Kelly Ingram Park, where they witnessed “the carnage of burned vehicles.”
Arthur Shores. A civil rights attorney and prominent leader of the protest movement in Birmingham, his home was bombed twice that fateful year and his neighborhood became known as “Dynamite Hill.” “If you were black in Birmingham in 1963, there was no escaping the violence and no place to hide,” Rice recalls.
Church bombing. The most indelible moment of that tragic year occurred on September 15 when a bomb at the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church killed four little girls who were on their way to Sunday school. Denise McNair, Addie Mae Collins, Cynthia Wesley and Carole Robertson were the four victims. What a small world we live in, because a future secretary of state and her family had strong connections to these girls. Rice writes that she knew McNair best and that they had played dolls together. McNair had been a student in Rice’s father’s first kindergarten class, and Rice’s uncle had been Collins’ teacher. “Birmingham was clearly exposed as a city of appalling hatred, prejudice and violence…The hometown terrorism against Birmingham’s children seemed finally to rock the nation’s conscience,” Rice writes.
As we remember the 1963 events in Birmingham, we must ask how much progress has been made. We have seen Section 4 of the Voting Rights Act thrown out by the Supreme Court, and have seen a Congress eager to erode the social safety net. The George Zimmerman trial demonstrates that racial tensions seem always right under the surface and around the corner, waiting for someone to exploit. And, in the quest for ratings, shows like “Big Brother” tolerate the racial hatred and bigotry spewed by two women who would be dismissed from the program if the network had any sense of decency and standards. Slavery has been called America’s original sin and race is still the great fault line in American society. If Birmingham made us move one step forward, we now seem to be moving two steps back.
“Extraordinary, Ordinary People: A Memoir of Family,” Condoleezza Rice, Crown Archetype, 2010