Yesterday was the 50th anniversary of the Birmingham church bombing of September 15th, 1963, and below is the text from a speech given afterwards by a White Alabama lawyer, Charles Morgan Jr., to the Birmingham Young Men’s Business Club. It’s instructive regarding race and a historical touchstone but it’s also instructive regarding the responsibilities of citizenry in a contentious democracy and how important it is that the powerful and privileged to speak truth to their peers.
Eloquence is always a plus but desiring and demanding the best of those around you goes a long way towards helping them believe that it’s possible in the first place. Don’t be afraid to step out and speak up. Change is slow but if your first concern is arriving at a promised land founded on the “best for all” few can shun that message forever because, ultimately, we all love someone. If a man can say the below during a time when Klansmen, every day people really, were murdering Black children in the streets then I figure we can all do our part and demand others do theirs as well. Too often, men and women like Mr. Morgan are the rare ones.
One thing that’s clear, reading below, is that people certainly haven’t changed much. Many continue to be cowards in general, moving sheepishly along with the herd and mumbling disapproval, signing our Facebook and other online petitions, promising our undying apathy in advancement of causes we support simply to avoid the guilt that would accompany a self admission that, truly, we care only insofar as things are placed directly under our noses.
You can probably tell I’m of two minds about this and I imagine you are as well. But, there’s only me I have control over. Only me, but that’s something. So, I’m presenting the below to you.
Four little girls were killed in Birmingham yesterday. A mad, remorseful worried community asks, “Who did it? Who threw that bomb? Was it a Negro or a white?” The answer should be, “We all did it.” Every last one of us is condemned for that crime and the bombing before it and a decade ago. We all did it.
A short time later, white policemen kill a Negro and wound another. A few hours later, two young men on a motorbike shoot and kill a Negro child. Fires break out, and, in Montgomery, white youths assault Negroes. And all across Alabama, an angry, guilty people cry out their mocking shouts of indignity and say they wonder, “Why?” “Who?” Everyone then “deplores” the “dastardly” act. But you know the “who” of “Who did it” is really rather simple.
The “who” is every little individual who talks about the “niggers” and spreads the seeds of his hate to his neighbor and his son. The jokester, the crude oaf whose racial jokes rock the party with laughter. The “who” is every governor who ever shouted for lawlessness and became a law violator. It is every senator and every representative who in the halls of Congress stands and with mock humility tells the world that things back home aren’t really like they are. It is courts that move ever so slowly, and newspapers that timorously defend the law.
It is all the Christians and all their ministers who spoke too late in anguished cries against violence. It is the coward in each of us who clucks admonitions. We have 10 years of lawless preachments, 10 years of criticism of law, of courts, of our fellow man, a decade of telling school children the opposite of what the civics books say. We are a mass of intolerance and bigotry and stand indicted before our young. We are cursed by the failure of each of us to accept responsibility, by our defense of an already dead institution.
Yesterday while Birmingham, which prides itself on the number of its churches, was attending worship services, a bomb went off and an all-white police force moved into action, a police force which has been praised by city officials and others at least once a day for a month or so. A police force which has solved no bombings. A police force which many Negroes feel is perpetrating the very evils we decry. And why would Negroes think this?
There are no Negro policemen; there are no Negro sheriff’s deputies. Few Negroes have served on juries; few have been allowed to vote; few have been allowed to accept responsibility, or granted even a simple part to play in the administration of justice. Do not misunderstand me. It it not that I think that white policemen had anything whatsoever to do with the killing of these children or previous bombings. It’s just that Negroes who see an all-white police force must think in terms of its failure to prevent or solve the bombing and think perhaps Negroes would have worked a little harder. They throw rocks and bottles and bullets. And we whites don’t seem to know why the Negroes are lawless. So we lecture them.
Birmingham is the only city in America where the police chief and the sheriff in the school crisis had to call our local ministers together to tell them to do their duty. The ministers of Birmingham who have done so little for Christianity call for prayer at high noon in a city of lawlessness, and in the same breath, speak of our city’s “image.” Did those ministers visit the families of the Negroes in their hour of travail? Did many of them go to the homes of their brothers and express their regrets in person or pray with the crying relatives? Do they admit Negroes into their ranks at the church?
Who is guilty? A moderate mayor elected to change things in Birmingham and who moves so slowly and looks elsewhere for leadership? A business community which shrugs its shoulders and looks to the police or perhaps somewhere else for leadership? A newspaper which has tried so hard of late, yet finds it necessary to lecture Negroes every time a Negro home is bombed? A governor who offers a reward but mentions not his own failure to preserve either segregation or law and order? And what of those lawyers and politicians who counsel people as to what the law is not, when they know full well what the law is?
Those four little Negro girls were human beings. They had lived their fourteen years in a leaderless city: a city where no one accepts responsibility, where everybody wants to blame somebody else. A city with a reward fund which grew like Topsy as a sort of sacrificial offering, a balm for the conscience of the “good people,” whose ready answer is for those “right wing extremists” to shut up. People who absolve themselves of guilt. The liberal lawyer who told me this morning, “Me? I’m not guilty!” he then proceeding to discuss the guilt of the other lawyers, the one who told the people that the Supreme Court did not properly interpret the law. And that’s the way it is with the Southern liberals. They condemn those with whom they disagree for speaking while they sit in fearful silence.
Birmingham is a city in which the major industry, operated from Pittsburgh, never tried to solve the problem. It is a city where four little Negro girls can be born into a second-class school system, live a segregated life, ghettoed into their own little neighborhoods, restricted to Negro churches, destined to ride in Negro ambulances, to Negro wards of hospitals or to a Negro cemetery. Local papers, on their front and editorial pages, call for order and then exclude their names from obituary columns.
And who is really guilty? Each of us. Each citizen who has not consciously attempted to bring about peaceful compliance with the decisions of the Supreme Court of the United States, every citizen who has ever said “they ought to kill that nigger,” every citizen who votes for the candidate with the bloody flag, every citizen and every school board member and schoolteacher 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.
What’s it like living in Birmingham? No one ever really has known and no one will until this city becomes part of the United States. Birmingham is not a dying city; it is dead.