Downtown Birmingham was gorgeous. Old buildings preserved, spacious parks and a very positive Chamber looking to re-build the city area devastated by the White Flight of the 60’s and 70’s.
When we decided on our location in the Title Building in Downtown Birmingham, we found ourselves in the heart of a particularly dark part of America’s recent history.
Images of the City are symbolic of an era ripped apart by racial division and the fight for social justice during those troubled times.
This was the city chosen by the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. to march for social justice in the ’60’s because it had as its’ Commissioner on Public Safety a very aggressive, racist and vindictive character by the name of Bull Conner.
King’s idea was to have Bull react viciously against his movement for social justice in such a way that, shown on TV, this would be a bell weather moment which could help change the minds of many Americans.
His idea worked. Films and pictures of women and children being mowed down by water hoses and bitten by Police dogs tore a deep scar in the American psychi.
One of our regular guests at the Safari Cup was a well studied and interesting Norwegian. We became good friends. I learnt of his studying for his Social Science Masters Degree.
He shared much of his research with me about the bombings in Birmingham during the 50’s and 60’s. The bombings and burnings were so prolific during this period, the city was nicknamed “Bomingham”.
This was especially true in 1963.
On of the great community leaders during those times was the Rev. Fred Shuttleworth. He was one of the main instigators wanting Dr. King to bring his Movement to Butterworth – Rev Shuttleworth’s home. I met with him in the latter stages of his life at the Safari Cup. Once again, touching the face of history.
My Norwegian friends Masters degree research had including newspaper cuttings, Police filings and court records from that period. He confirmed what Dianne McWhorter had written in her Pulitzer Prize winning book “Carry me home”.
To anyone who wants to know the truth about this era in the southern states of the USA, (particularly the bombings in Birmingham), this book is a must read.
Dianne was a daughter of one of those Birmingham industrialists. She was a part of the inner circle. However, she broke ranks to write the book and tell the story from inside this insidious circle of heartless, predatory (terrorist) industrialists.
For this, she was hated with a level of venom I had never known before. I remember talking one day with two elderly lawyers (they were in their 80’s) who would come into the coffee shop often enough for me to befriend them. Their legal office had been taken over but they were brought in once or twice a week – I think just to make them feel they were still part of the legal team.
They were fun and mentally very alert. I would tease them about American football (you know, the helmet, the make-up and shiny women’s running pants. They , in turn, would question why the Eight man in a rugby scrum stuck his head between the arses of the locks in a scrum). It was grand banter.
Unfortunately, one day, I mentioned the book and the atmosphere turned from fun and joviality to icy silence. Eventually one of them spat out from his ever-reddening face that Dianne McWhorter was a liar and that “everything in the book was a lie”. He also claimed that she had done that because her father had done some bad deals and had lost most of his wealth. The book was a means to get back at those who were still “successful”.
Several days later, I spoke with one of the senior partners in the same law firm telling him what had happened, (He too was a friend coming in every morning for his latte).
When I told him, he nearly dropped his mug. “You didn’t” he said. Boy, I knew I had stepped in it this time. “Why, what…” I replied.
Turns out the two old guys were the sons of Bull Conner’s defense attorney from the law firm Smyth and Smyth. And Dianne McWhorter was their first cousin! Oops…
These bombings were arranged by Birmingham’s industrial leaders at their local Country Clubs often after a family Sunday luncheon.
In conjunction with Bull Conner, they would provide the target and necessary cover for elements of the KKK to bomb the homes of prominent religious, social and political leaders of the City’s Black community.
The idea was to sow hate and distrust between the races thereby break up the Unions who were abandoning racial division for Worker unity – something they could not and would not allow to happen – at any price.
Here are two stories from Birmingham’s dark history.
Bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church (15 September, 1963)
Not three or four blocks away from our coffee shop location was the 16th Street Baptist Church.
On Sunday, 15 September, 1963 four young girls – Addie Mae Collins (14), Cynthia Wesley (14), Denise McNair (11) and Carole Robertson (14) – lost their lives to a bomb planted in the basement of their church by members of the United Klansmen of America. The bomb went off as they were changing into their choir robes.
Only one (Robert Chambliss) of the four bombers (Robert Chambliss, Thomas Edwin Blanton, Bobby Frank Cherry and Herman Frank Cash) was convicted of the bombing. And that only took place in 1977, 14 years after the bombing. The City was run and controlled by the KKK. Even the FBI struggled to collect evidence on the bombers. hence the long delay between the event and the one conviction.
Cash would escape any prosecution when he died in 1994.
Cherry and Chambliss were eventually convicted in 2002 (when we were operating Safari Cup) by Prosecutor Doug Jones (who won a 2017 Senate election becoming the first Democratic Senator from Alabama since 2008).
He defeated Judge Roy Moore (Republican) who lost his job in 2003 as Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Alabama for refusing a US Supreme Court order to remove a marble monument of the 10 Commandments he had installed at the front of the Alabama Supreme Court. The First Amendment to the United States Constitution separates Church and State. Moore also faced several claims of sexual harassment during the election.
Assassination of Father Doyle (Aug 11, 1921)
In the next block up from our Coffee Shop was St Paul’s Cathedral. This was the place where a Father Coyle, who became pastor of St. Paul’s Cathedral in 1904, was shot to death on Aug. 11, 1921 by The Rev. Edwin R. Stephenson, a Methodist minister and a known Klansman.
Rev. Stephenson shot Father Coyle after becoming irate over Coyle’s officiating at the marriage of Stephenson’s daughter, Ruth, to a Puerto Rican, Pedro Gussman.
Ruth had sought out the priest for counseling and converted to Catholicism.
As defense attorney, Black had Gussman summoned into the courtroom and questioned him about his curly hair. Lights were arranged in the courtroom so the darkness of Gussman’s complexion would be accentuated, according to an Oct. 20, 1921, newspaper account of the final day of the trial. Black gained an acquittal based on an appeal to the jury’s ethnic and religious prejudices.
Years later Black renounced his Ku Klux Klan ties and became one of the most liberal members of the U.S. Supreme Court.