Wales’ response to a horrific murder 50 years ago

Today is the 50th anniversary of the horrific bombing of Birmingham, Alabama’s 16th Street Baptist Church that killed four little girls and became the catalyst which led to the passage of the Civil Rights Act. At 10:22 a.m. on Sunday, Sept. 15, 1963, as families arrived to attend services at the church, a thunderous explosion rang out from the basement, where several girls had gone to use the toilets. The bomb was thrown by Ku Klux Klan members into the basement and it killed Denise McNair, 11, Carole Robertson, 14, Addie Mae Collins, 14, and Cynthia Wesley, 14.

church-bombing

By the late summer of 1963, Birmingham, had become a hot spot in the Civil Rights Movement, and 16th St. Baptist Church served as a central meeting place for organisers like Martin Luther King who had led efforts to win Civil Rights for black people.

Although the horrific 1963 bombing proved to be a turning point in the Civil Rights movement, justice was anything but swift for the men who planted the dynamite that killed four black girls. Despite a national outcry for justice, however, this was Birmingham, a place where 50 other racially motivated bombings had gone unsolved over recent decades, earning the town the nickname “Bombingham.” It took 40 years bring closure: one man was convicted in 2002 for his role in the bombing conspiracy, and died two years later while serving a life sentence. Another was found guilty of state murder charges in 2001, and is still serving a life term, a third died in prison in 1985 and fourth died without ever serving a day behind bars.

Like many church’s constructed during that era, the church was a tall brick building with stained glass windows which were all blown out.

John Petts' window - A Gift from Wales
John Petts’ window – A Gift from Wales

I was 15 when this horrendous bombing took place. It was the catalyst that committed me to a lifetime of fighting for social justice. What I’m proudest of, however, is the response of the children of Wales who responded to a newspaper appeal to finance a new stained glass window for the church. The maximum donation allowed was the equivalent of 12p so it was in the range of their pocket money. Today the Wales Window, crafted by Welsh artist John Petts, stands as a symbol of the unity of the children of Wales with the black people, especially the children, of Birmingham, AL and the wider USA. I’m so proud to be a Welshman in a nation known for its inclusion and tolerance.

“I Have a Dream” – 50 years on, has the dream died?

MLK addresses the crowdFifty years ago, on 28 August 1963, a tipping point in the United States history took place. A quarter of a million people took part in the historic March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. The Civil Rights movement had been gathering momentum for economic and social justice for black people which had barely improved in the 200 years since slavery had been abolished. Lynching of black people was still taking place, most notably that of Emmett Till, a 14-year-old boy who was killed for allegedly having wolf-whistled at a white woman.

Joan Baez and Bob DylanFor three hours following the march from the Washington memorial to the Lincoln Memorial, the crowd — a fifth of whom were white — heard speeches and songs from such people as Joan Baez; Bob Dylan; Mahalia Jackson; Peter, Paul, and Mary, Charlton Heston, Harry Belafonte, Marlon Brando, Diahann Carroll, Sammy Davis Jr., Lena Horne, Paul Newman,Rosa Parks and Sidney Poitier.

The climax came in a 16 minute speech given by Dr Martin Luther King Jr, the undisputed leader of the Civil Rights Movement. Ironically, the transformative “dream speech” did not contain the passage that started with “I have a dream”. In the seventh paragraph, something extraordinary happened. King paused. In that brief silence, Mahalia Jackson, a gospel singer and good friend of King’s, shouted “Tell ‘em about the ‘dream.'” King pushed the text of his prepared remarks to one side of the lectern. He changed his course in a heartbeat, abandoning whatever final version he’d prepared…he’d given himself over to the spirit of the moment and improvised much of the second half of the speech. The text of the speech is an inspiration to read today.

I remember, as clearly as yesterday, watching the television news that evening and the newscaster saying about a remarkable speech given in Washington that day and they played a long extract. I recall thinking at the time that this was a watershed for me and I date my total commitment to social justice from that Wednesday, 50 years ago, when I was a 15-year-old boy.

This was not something out of the blue — I remember being horrified by the scenes of American police turning water cannon and loosing dogs on the thousands of children who marched for justice in Birmingham, Alabama just three months earlier. My horror was later confirmed by a dreadful incident only two weeks after MLK’s speech when the Ku Klux Klan bombed a Baptist church in Birmingham, Alabama and killed four teenage girls. This incident was immortalised in the Joan Baez song, “Birmingham Sunday”. Eight weeks later, the world forgot these incidents because on 22 November 1963 the focus of the world moved to the assassination of serial womaniser President John Fitzgerald Kennedy.

So 50 years have passed and I ask myself how much has been achieved in that time. Some legislation was passed following the march which improved the rights of black people in the USA and now there is nominal equality on the statute books. Paradoxically, the opening lines of  what is probably the United States’ most precious document, The Declaration of Independence, start with the words, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness”. Sadly, the reality today is that there is a huge section, notably the Republican Party, who do not believe that. Despite losing the election last year, Republicans are determined to slash programs that are viewed as giving “stuff” (in Mitt Romney’s word) to poorer Americans and especially minorities. They have sabotaged President Barack Obama’s health reform law and want to devastate funding for food stamps, transportation, education assistance and other domestic programs.

The election of a black president in 2008 was not beginning of a of a “post-racial” America but a signal for white right-wingers to rally their forces to “take back America.” The fact that the modern Republican Party has become almost exclusively white and the nation’s minorities have turned more and more to the Democratic Party has released the Republicans from any sense of racial tolerance.

The 1963 March was mirrored 16 years later by National March on Washington for Lesbian and Gay Rights and its similar quest for social justice resulted in some equality legislation. However, the bitterness of the opposition to gay marriage in the USA, which far exceeds any opposition to that which we experienced in the UK, is breathtaking in its naked aggression towards gay and lesbian people.

When I made a comment on Facebook that I was planning this blog a couple of days ago, one of my socialist friends made a moving comment;

It’s awesome that you still have the dream, Paul when so many others got disillusioned and cynical

I reflected on what he said and realised that it was the injustices in society and the way that those on the margins of that society are treated that reinforce my commitment to socialism and to a just society. I won’t get disillusioned and cynical – I’ll just continue to get angry and to fight injustice.

I’ll close with the closing words of MLK’s speech:

I have a dream today!

With this faith, we will be able to hew out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope. With this faith, we will be able to transform the jangling discords of our nation into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood. With this faith, we will be able to work together, to pray together, to struggle together, to go to jail together, to stand up for freedom together, knowing that we will be free one day.

And this will be the day — this will be the day when all of God’s children will be able to sing with new meaning:

My country ’tis of thee, sweet land of liberty, of thee I sing.
Land where my fathers died, land of the Pilgrim’s pride,
From every mountainside, let freedom ring!

 And if America is to be a great nation, this must become true.

 And so let freedom ring from the prodigious hilltops of New Hampshire.
Let freedom ring from the mighty mountains of New York.
Let freedom ring from the heightening Alleghenies of Pennsylvania.
Let freedom ring from the snow-capped Rockies of Colorado.
Let freedom ring from the curvaceous slopes of California.

 But not only that:

Let freedom ring from Stone Mountain of Georgia.
Let freedom ring from Lookout Mountain of Tennessee.
Let freedom ring from every hill and molehill of Mississippi.
From every mountainside, let freedom ring.

And when this happens, and when we allow freedom ring, when we let it ring from every village and every hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up that day when all of God’s children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual:

Free at last! Free at last!
Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!

 

Preach it Martin, they weren’t listening the first time!

Monty Python, Aneurin Bevan and other pains in the bum

As I approach my 65th birthday I have come to a profound conclusion. There are two kinds of people: those who dictate who and what you can be and those who follow their dictates. Then there are those of us who are not followers. Before you point out that appears to be three kinds of people – it is not. The dictators and those who follow them are one kind of people. It takes one to make the other possible, they are indivisible.

The second group – the people who choose not to be dictated to – are not looking for trouble. We simply can’t follow people because we’re told to follow them. No matter what we decide to do, we’re not going to be highly regarded by the dictators and their followers. We rub up them the wrong way.

Those who go along with the dictates are usually content in their role, but those of us who are choosers, we bump into things, fall down, get up and go in another direction. Then we do it all over again. We refuse to follow the crowd and do what we’re told. We blaze our own trail.

People would say we make it hard for ourselves. It’s unacceptable and frowned upon in most circles. We are the rebels. We’re black, gay, disabled, justice crusaders, rejecters of the status-quo. We campaign and speak out. We are supposed to follow instructions but we can’t do that. We aren’t followers. We will capture people’s imagination for a while and then they will be uncomfortable with us.

Nye BevanMy greatest hero, Aneurin Bevan, was a nightmare to work with says every contemporary account but he wouldn’t be diverted from his goals. He didn’t care what people thought of him. Most visionaries and entrepreneurs share Nye’s ability to upset people – but they get things done. Ironically, most left-wing organisations with which I identify have more than their fair share of highly motivated, highly opinionated people and they fall out with one another. This is beautifully parodied in Monty Python’s Life of Brian (See YouTube extract, strong language warning!)

“Judean People’s Front? We’re the People’s Front of Judea!”


So, having decided I’m comfortable in my own skin as a Group Two rebel and don’t care what anyone else thinks, I’m preparing to sacrifice some more sacred cows.