Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Birmingham Church Bombing: the murders that shocked the nation

(Nathan Stripling is an eighth grader in Mr. Randy Turner's communication arts class at South Middle School during the 2007-2008 school year.)

“The Sept. 15, 1963, bombing at the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, was one of the most abhorrent crimes of the civil rights movement.” It all started out on a nice day, the early morning of September 15, 1963. It seemed as if it was going to be a peaceful day, but it was not as they intended it. Ku Klux Klan member Robert Edward Chambliss stood just a few blocks away from the church. “He had been seen earlier getting out of a white and turquoise Chevrolet car and placing a box right under the steps of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church, which later, obviously turned out to be a bomb.” On this morning, four innocent young girls were in the middle of changing into their church robes in the basement of the church. Eleven year old Denise McNair, and fourteen year olds Addie Mae Collins, Carole Robertson, and Cynthia Wesley were the girls that were killed. (http://afroamhistory.about.com/od/16thstreetbaptistchurch/a/16streetbombing.htm) Twenty other people were also injured along with those four girls. (World Book Encyclopedia, page 87, copyright 1987)
The Sixteenth Street Baptist Church had served as an important part of the African-American community and was used as a meeting place during the civil rights movement. It was also used for mass rallies and Martin Luther King Jr. was among the many leaders who spoke at these events. “It had also been the headquarters for several desegregation protests.” (http://afroamhistory.about.com/od/16thstreetbaptistchurch/a/16streetbombing.htm) (World Book Encyclopedia, page 87, copyright 1987)
“When the church was bombed, it was a sign of the hostility that the segregationists had against the civil rights struggle.” Even though the bomb was a big surprise to most, many bomb threats had been made in the past. But, this time, no threat was made. A hole was blown in the east side of the church. It shattered many windows, along with walls, and doors. “Even the air was filled with a thick cloud of dust and soot, and as community members dug through the debris in search of survivors, they discovered the bodies of the four girls.”(http://afroamhistory.about.com/od/16thstreetbaptistchurch/a/16streetbombing.htm)
There was so much grief between the African-American community and white strangers that heard of the tragic incident. “At the funeral of three of the girls, Martin Luther King gave the eulogy, which was witnessed by 8,000 mourners, both white and black.”(http://afroamhistory.about.com/od/16thstreetbaptistchurch/a/16streetbombing.htm)
“The FBI led the initial investigation into the bombing.” “According to a 1965 FBI memorandum to director J. Edgar Hoover, it was determined that Robert E. Chambliss, Bobby Frank Cherry, Herman Frank Cash, and Thomas E. Blanton Jr. had planted the bomb at the church.” “Based on the investigation, the Birmingham FBI office recommended prosecuting the suspects.” “Hoover, however, blocked their prosecution by rejecting the recommendation that the federal receive the testimony that identified the suspects. By 1968, charges had not yet been filed against the suspects. Therefore, the FBI decided to close the case. (http://afroamhistory.about.com/od/16thstreetbaptistchurch/a/16streetbombing.htm)
But, in 1971, Alabama Attorney General Bill Baxley decided to reopen the case for further investigation. “On November 18, 1977, Robert Chambliss was convicted of first-degree murder and was sentenced to life in prison.” “The case was once again reopened in 1988 and in July 1997, after the FBI received a tip.” “Herman Frank Cash was still one of the prime suspects, but before a case could be established against him, he died in 1994.” (http://afroamhistory.about.com/od/16thstreetbaptistchurch/a/16streetbombing.htm)
“On May 17, 2000, Thomas Blanton Jr. and Bobby Frank Cherry were charged with the murder of the four girls.” “Blanton was tried, convicted, and sentenced to life in prison on May 1, 2001.” “For the jurors who convicted him, the 1964 taped conversations that the FBI secretly recorded, weighed heavily on their decision.” “The tapes had remained secret until 1997, when the case was reopened. In one recorded conversation that took place between Blanton and his wife, Blanton told her that he was at the Klan meeting where both the bombing was planned and where the bomb was first made.” “In another recorded conversation, Blanton spoke about the bombing to an FBI informant while driving in a car.” “For the jurors, the taped conversations provided enough evidence to convict Thomas Blanton Jr. of murder.” (http://afroamhistory.about.com/od/16thstreetbaptistchurch/a/16streetbombing.htm)
Bobby Frank Cherry also had a trial, but it was postponed after the judge had ruled that he was mentally unstable to assist his attorney. After the judge ruled he was ready to assist his attorney, and was competent to stand trial, he was found guilty of four counts of murder. On May 22, 2002, he was sentenced to life in prison. “For the family and friends of the four murdered girls, the conviction of Thomas Blanton Jr. and Bobby Frank Cherry was a very long awaited victory. It was great for them to see those two crooks put behind bars for the rest of their lives. (http://afroamhistory.about.com/od/16thstreetbaptistchurch/a/16streetbombing.htm)
On the dreadful day of the bombing, a white man was seen getting out of a white and turquoise Chevrolet car and placing a box under the steps of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church, which turned out to be a bomb. “Soon afterwards, at 10:22 a.m., the bomb exploded, killing Denise McNair, Addie Mae Collins, Carole Robertson, and Cynthia Wesley. One source says 20 were injured, but the other says that 23 people were injured. Either way, this was a horrible crime that never should have been committed in the first place.
(http://www.infoplease.com/spot/bhmjustice3.html) (http://afroamhistory.about.com/od/16thstreetbaptistchurch/a/16streetbombing.htm)
Robert Chambliss, who was tried and had been sentenced to life in prison in November 1977, died in an Alabama prison on October 29, 1985. (http://www.english.uiuc.edu/map/poets/m_r/randall/birmingham.htm)
“On May 17, 2000, the FBI announced that the Sixteenth Street Church bombing had been carried out by the Ku Klux Klan splinter group, the Cahaba Boys.” “It was claimed that four men, Robert Chambliss, Herman Cash, Thomas Blanton Jr. and Bobby Frank Cherry had been responsible for the crime. Herman Cash was dead but Thomas Blanton Jr. and Bobby Frank Cherry were arrested, but only Thomas Blanton Jr. has been since tried and convicted with the murder of Denise McNair, Addie Mae Collins, Carole Robertson, and Cynthia Wesley. (http://www.english.uiuc.edu/map/poets/m_r/randall/birmingham.htm)
Robert Chambliss died in jail before the police got him to fully confess to the bombing of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church, along with the murder of the four girls. Bobby Frank Cherry died in prison in 2004. “One of the prosecutors in the case, Robert Posey, said Cherry has worn the crime like a badge of honor.” (http://www.infoplease.com/spot/bhmjustice3.html)

Violence in Birmingham: Church bombing kills four

(Sarah Phillips is an eighth grader in Mr. Randy Turner's eighth grade communication arts class at South Middle School during the 2007-2008 school year.)

September 15, 1963 10:25 AM.: A dynamite bomb exploded in the basement of the 16th Street Church in Birmingham, Alabama. This happened because Martin Luther King Jr. was to speak at the church that night. Many times before antiracial protests had been held at this very church.

Four girls were killed in the explosion, Denise McNair, age 12, Cynthia Wesley, age 14, Carol Robertson, age 13, and Addie Mae Collins, age 11. Addie Mae’s sister, Sarah Collins, was age 15. She survived the explosion but was left blind by this event. When the Pastor went back in to “survey” the damage, he didn’t notice the girls because where they were in the most severally damaged part of the church. They were not discovered until the construction crew started to clear away the ruble. (The Birmingham Church Bombing By Stephen Currie the Papers of Martin Luther King, Jr. wikipedia.org/wiki/16th_Street_Baptist_Church_bombing)

This event lead to more violence in Birmingham. “Outrage at the bombing and the grief that followed resulted in violence across Birmingham. By the end of the day, two more African-American youths had been killed. Sixteen-year-old Johnnie Robinson was shot and killed by police after throwing stones at cars with white people inside. Two white teenage boys riding on a motor scooter shot 13-year-old Virgil Ware, who was on a bike with his brother.” (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/16th_Street_Baptist_Church_bombing)
This event marked a turning point of the civil-rights movement. It helped gain supporters for the passing of laws that protects civil rights of Americans. “The attack was intended to instill fear among African Americans who had been demonstrating for an end to segregation and to disrupt court-ordered integration of public schools. Instead, the bombing caused public outrage and helped build support for civil rights legislation by the Kennedy Administration.” (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/16th_Street_Baptist_Church bombing)

When the bomb exploded, it was like the shot heard round the world. It was a slap in the face for many people, especially for the black citizens of Birmingham. The citizens were alarmed that an assault of such degree would happen to their church down the street. A racial insult of this magnitude changed the lives of many people and the world. (The Papers of Martin Luther King Jr.)

It is as if Bobby Frank Cherry, Thomas Blanton Jr., and Robert Edward Chambliss, members of the Ku Klux Klan, did not care that they took the lives of four girls, but let’s hope they probably think about what they did every day. There are some sick people in this world and each one keeps getting sicker by the day.
When I think about the Birmingham church bombing, the first thing that comes to mind is fire and the looks on the mothers’ faces when they learned about their daughters deaths. The second thing that comes to mind is injustice, it took them thirty years to prosecute these men, and Bobby Frank Cherry was the only one to go to jail. The little girls died and they do not even get the men that killed them to pay for what they did. If that is not injustice then I do not know what is. And their mothers knowing their daughters killers are still out there, not knowing if they will devastate another town, and more mothers, but not just mothers next time, maybe whole cities or more than one city dozens of other cities just waiting for their death in the little church down the street. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/16th_Street_Baptist_Church_bombing)

”I am serving four life sentences for a crime I did not commit.” Bobby Frank Cherry. The Irony of this situation is injustice. Booby Frank Cherry claimes he is unjustly prosecuted He claimes to be a prisoner of war in the state of Alabama when in all actuality he started a war himself. Was He unjustly accused or is he lying through his teeth? When you do something wrong you need to own up to it, if I ever saw that Bobby Frank Cherry I would have one thing to say what if it was you or your daughter? IF something this devastating happened to you would want the person brought to justice. You would not want the criminal to walk free on the streets but behind bars paying for what he did, not just to your daughter but you and your city. (http://www.geocities.com/bobbyfcherry/)

Can you even imagine it? Your whole world would come crashing down in front of you. Is it fair, of course it is never fair, nobody disserves that, it does not matter how much you hate them. “These children unoffending, innocent, and beautiful-were the victims of one of the most vicious and tragic crimes ever perpetrated against humanity.” By Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. from the funeral service of three of the girls, Addie Mae Collins, Carol Denise McNair, and Cynthia Diane Wesley, that died in the bombing. (http://www.africanamericans.com/MLKjrSpeechMenu.htm)

If Joplin was bombed like the church or The Twin Towers, I am not sure what would happen, but what I know would happen is chaos, pure chaos. A healthy dose of chaos is probably good for you but not like Birmingham or The Twin Towers, too much of that kind of chaos will make you sick. But, it can also bring out hope, because of what we see happen to the world, during attacks on humanity. As Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. once said, “Everybody can be great ... because anybody can serve... you only need a heart full of grace and a soul generated by love." (http://www.africanamericans.com/MLKjrSpeechMenu.htm)

March on Washington changed America

(Ty Warden is an eighth grade student in Mr. Randy Turner's communication arts class at South Middle School during the 2007-2008 school year.)

On August 28, 1963, two hundred fifty thousand people gathered in Washington D.C to attend the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. This was the second time the march had been scheduled, and it would not be canceled. Many civil rights organizations helped plan the march. The “big six” were among these.

The “big six” consists of the six most important civil rights leaders. The "Big Six" organizers were John Lewis, of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC); James Farmer, of the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE);Martin Luther King Jr., of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC); Roy Wilkins, of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People(NAACP); A. Phillip Randolph, of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters; and Whitney Young, Jr., of the National Urban League. Lots of people were at the march. People probably thought they were bored but there was like lots of stuff to do. There was people who played music, like, Bob Dylan, Peter, Paul, and Mary; Josh White and like lots more. There were some people that didn’t want the march to happen, like Malcolm X, and John F. Kennedy, and the Ku Klux Klan. When President Kennedy heard the march was going on for sure, he thought it was okay, but hoped for the best.

The best speeches were John Lewis and Martin Luther King. They are still two of the best in history today. John Lewis said “The revolution is at hand, and we must free ourselves of the chains of political and economic slavery. The nonviolent revolution is saying, "We will not wait for the courts to act, for we have been waiting hundreds of years. We will not wait for the President, nor the Justice Department, nor Congress, but we will take matters into our own hands, and create a great source of power, outside of any national structure that could and would assure us victory." For those who have said, "Be patient and wait!" we must say, "Patience is a dirty and nasty word." We cannot be patient, we do not want to be free gradually, we want our freedom, and we want it now. We cannot depend on any political party, for the Democrats and the Republicans have betrayed the basic principles of the Declaration of Independence.”

A lot of the people thought that there would be a lot of fighting and mad people there but there wasn’t. The two thousand nine hundred police officers that had been scheduled to work the march were not needed. This was going to be a civil protest.

Many things were meant to be mentioned at the march, including the following, (according to .S. New & World Report- September 9, 1963.) Passage of "meaningful" civil-rights legislation at this session of Congress- no filibusting, Immediate elimination of all racial segregation in public schools throughout the nation, A big program of public works to provide jobs for all the nations’ unemployed, including job training and a placement program, A federal law prohibiting racial discrimination in hiring workmen- either public or private, $2-an-hour minimum wage, across the board, nationwide, Withholding of federal funds from programs in which discrimination exists, Enforcement of the Fourteenth Amendment, reducing congressional representation of states where citizens are disenfranchised, A broadened Fair Labor Standards Act to include currently-excluded employment areas, Authority for the Attorney General to institute injunctive suits when any constitutional right is violated.
Many of the speakers spoke, and were hoping to persuade every one to “step up their civil rights activates.” However, when martin Luther king jr. started to talk, everything changed. (http://www.angelfire.com/pa/marchonwashington/march.html)

He stood up there and said “It would be fatal for the nation to overlook the urgency of the moment. This sweltering summer of the Negro's legitimate discontent will not pass until there is an invigorating autumn of freedom and equality. Nineteen sixty-three is not an end, but a beginning. And those who hope that the Negro needed to blow off steam and will now be content will have a rude awakening if the nation returns to business as usual. And there will be neither rest nor tranquility in America until the Negro is granted his citizenship rights. The whirlwinds of revolt will continue to shake the foundations of our nation until the bright day of justice emerges.” Later in the speech he mentioned “This is our hope, and this is the faith that I go back to the South with. 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.” He ended the speech with “And when this happens, 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. (http://www.americanrhetoric.com/speeches/mlkihaveadream.htm)

The March on Washington was the largest political gathering to this date. The police were so worried of a riot that the army and national guard were put on high alert, locals were given riot control training, police dogs were banned, and paratroopers were put on alert as well. To ensure a peaceful day, liquor sale was banned for the day, shops closed, and even a baseball game postponed. But what actually happened that day was more of peace than riot, at least the true outcome was. The men and women that participated that day were some of the greatest heroes of the civil rights movement because of the courage and message that they got across to the American public.

The True Story of the Mississippi Murders

(Sarah Kessler is a student in Mr. Randy Turner's eighth grade communication arts class at South Middle School during the 2007-2008 school year.)


It was a hot, summer’s night, and in the darkness, you could hear voices chanting, “Ashes to ashes, dust to dust, if you’d stayed where you belonged, you wouldn’t be here with us.”

Terrified, three men stood, listening to the chant, waiting to die. As the Ku Klux Klan finished their chant, they raised their guns and fired. The men dropped to the ground, dead.

As terrible as this sounds, a scene similar to this actually did take place on June 21, 1964. (Huie 134-139)

The Murder Story

It was 1964 and three college students, Michael Schwerner, Andrew Goodman, and James Chaney, had arrived in Philadelphia, Mississippi, to participate in Freedom Summer. This event was a program in the Southern states to register blacks to vote. Many of the volunteers in this campaign were college students from the North. Among these volunteers were Schwerner and Goodman. Their companion, Chaney, was a local Mississippian who joined them in their civil rights work.


As the trio was heading to Meridian, Mississippi, in their car to investigate a church bombing, they were arrested by Cecil Price, a police officer and suspected member of the KKK. The reason given for their jailing was that they were driving over the speed limit. (Ball 37.)

While the civil rights workers were being held in prison, Michael (known as Mickey to his friends,) requested a phone call. Their guard refused to let him make his call. Price then informed his fellow Klansman, Edgar Killen that he had captured and imprisoned the men.

Around ten o’clock, Chaney, Schwerner, and Goodman were released from the jail, only to be ambushed by other KKK members. After a high-speed car chase, the young men were captured by Ku Klux Klan members.


Nobody but certain members of the KKK know exactly what happened that night in Mississippi, but we do know that the three victims were shot to death. Chaney was also beaten, most likely because of his race. Forty four days after the murders, the bodies of these courageous men were found, buried by a nearby farm in an earthen dam. The burnt remnants of the trio’s car were also found.

Goodman, Chaney, and Schwerner are remembered in history for their bravery and their dedicated work in the civil rights movement. They may be gone, but their names and their work remain. This is the story of the Mississippi Murders.


Killen’s Trial

At the time of the murder, no one was tried for murder. Now, 41 years after the fateful night when Chaney, Goodman, and Schwerner were brutally murdered, Edgar Ray Killen finally was before a jury, charged with manslaughter.

Killen, known as “Preacher” in the community where he lived, was taken to court when he was 80 years old. He was confined to a wheelchair, due to a recent logging accident when he was employed as a sawmill operator. (www.courttv.com/trials/killen/background_ctv.html)

Killen was accused of being the leader of a group of white supremacists who captured and killed three civil rights workers in the summer of 1964. (www.courttv.com/trials/killen/062105_verdict_ctv.html)

In 2005, Killen was placed in front of Judge Marcus Gordon in court. This judge said that he had “taken into consideration that there are three lives in this case and that the three lives should be absolutely respected.” Killen was sentenced to three 20-year terms in prison, one for each murder victim.

Even though this man was tried 41 years late for the murders he committed, it’s better late than never. Justice finally was served in Mississippi. (www.law.umkc.edu/faculty/projects/ftrials/price&bowers/Killen.htm)

About the Victims

James Chaney

James Chaney was born in Meridian, Mississippi, on May 30, 1943. His mother’s name was Fannie Lee Chaney, and his father’s, Ben Chaney. He was the oldest in a family of 5 children. His father left him, his siblings, and his mother when Chaney was in his teen years. In 1953, James was suspended from the colored school when he refused to take of the NAACP button he was wearing. He was expelled about a year later for fighting in school.

Chaney’s asthma prevented him from joining the army, but he led on to work with his father as a plasterer. When James was 20 years old, he and his father had a fight which resulted in him joining the CORE organization (Congress of Racial Equality).

In 1964, when Chaney was 21 years old, CORE took part of Freedom Summer. He was partnered with Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner to register black Mississippians to vote. The KKK heard of the trio’s mission and murdered them on June 21, 1964. (www.core-online.org/History/chaney.htm)

Michael Schwerner

Michael Schwerner, known as “Mickey” to his friends, was born on November 6, 1939 in New York City. He started college at Michigan State University in hopes of becoming a veterinarian. Schwerner then decided to switch his major to sociology and transferred to Cornell University.

When Michael was 24, he was hired as a field worker in the CORE organization. He and his new wife, Rita, then went to Mississippi as volunteers for Freedom Summer.

Schwerner was soon to be known as “Goatee” to KKK members and he became one of the most hated civil rights workers. Because of the KKK’s hatred of him, Michael and his coworkers, Chaney and Goodman, were all shot to death on June 21, 1964. (www.core-online.org/History/schwerner.htm)

Andrew Goodman

Andrew Goodman was born to Robert and Carolyn Goodman on November 23, 1943. He grew up in New York, New York with two brothers. Goodman transferred to Queens College after spending a year sudying at the University of Wisconsin. His original plans were to earn a degree in drama, but he changed his mind and studied anthropology.

Andrew had been an activist since the early age of 15, and when his application to Freedom Summer was accepted, he immediately headed down to Mississippi.

When Goodman reached Mississippi, he met up with “Mickey” and started their civil rights work to register blacks to vote. They were also accompanied by James Chaney. Sadly, Andrew Goodman only lived to be 20 years old, for he and his comrades were killed by the Ku Klux Klan shortly after they had begun their work in Mississippi.




Ball, Howard. Murder in Mississippi, 2004.

Huie, William. Civil Rights, 2000.











Sunday, February 24, 2008

Recent Obama/Clinton debate topic revives interest in Civil Rights Act of 1964

The recent blowup between presidential candidates Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama over who was primarily responsible for the Civil Rights Act of 1964, Martin Luther King Jr. or Lyndon B. Johnson, has sparked an interest in the act, including an insightful article from AlterNet:

The act had its legislative origins in a June 11, 1963 speech that President John Kennedy delivered on national television after Justice Department officials, aided by federal marshals, forced Alabama Governor George Wallace to stand aside while two black students were admitted to the previously segregated University of Alabama. "If an American, because his skin is dark … cannot enjoy the full and free life which all of us want, then who among us would be content to have the color of his skin changed and stand in his place?" Kennedy asked the country.

But Kennedy's speech, which was followed hours later by the murder of Mississippi civil rights leader Medgar Evers in Jackson, did not guarantee a speedy passage of civil rights legislation. A coalition of southern Democrats and conservative Republicans stood in the way and the best that Kennedy could do before his November 22 assassination was to get his civil rights bill voted out of committee.

It fell to President Lyndon Johnson to get Kennedy's civil rights legislation enacted. Soon after taking office, Johnson made his intentions clear. "We have talked long enough in this country about equal rights," he told a joint session of Congress on November 27. "It is time now to write the next chapter and to write it in books of law." At this same time, Martin Luther King was playing a crucial role in shaping public opinion. His April 16 "Letter from Birmingham Jail" and his August 28 speech "I Have a Dream" galvanized millions of Americans who in the past had remained passive when support for civil rights was needed.

Still, it was not until 1964 that Kennedy's civil rights bill got through Congress. On February 10, the House passed the bill by a vote of 290 to 130 and on June 19, in the wake of a record-breaking 75-day filibuster, which took up 534 hours, the Senate passed its version of the civil rights bill by a 73 to 27 margin. Now Lyndon Johnson began pressuring Congress to reach agreement on a bill that he could sign by July 4.

At this moment, Johnson benefited not only from the civil rights coalition led by Martin Luther King but from the grassroots work of Bob Moses, then a young organizer for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) who had been active in Mississippi since 1961. At a November 1963 SNCC meeting, Moses had proposed a 1964 "Summer Project" in Mississippi that would make extensive use of college students, getting them to teach in freedom schools and carry out voter registration drives. A black-white coalition, Moses believed, would engage the whole country. But no sooner had the Summer Project begun when three of its participants -- Michael Schwerner, James Chaney, and Andrew Goodman -- disappeared on June 21 near Philadelphia, Mississippi.

Their disappearance (their bodies would later be found buried in an earthen dam) could not be ignored by America. Television cameras and the print media descended on Mississippi while state officials acted as if nothing of importance had happened. "They could be in Cuba," joked Mississippi Governor Paul Johnson.

It was the worst response that the diehard segregationists of the Deep South could have made. The influence of Martin Luther King, Lyndon Johnson, and John Kennedy, along with years of demonstrations and sit-ins, had created a political tide that reached its peak with the disappearance of the three men. On July 2, two days ahead of schedule, Congress, under heavy public pressure, agreed to the civil rights bill that Johnson wanted. Five hours later in a White House signing ceremony timed to coincide with the evening news, the president addressed the nation.

"One hundred and eighty-eight years ago this week a small band of valiant men began a long struggle for freedom," Johnson told the nation. "Now our generation of Americans has been called on to continue the unending search for justice within our own borders." The analogy was unmistakable. The president was comparing the work of the Founding Fathers with that of the civil rights movement.

Martin Luther King, who was present at the White House signing ceremony, also had no doubts about the significance of the day or about Lyndon Johnson's role in making the civil rights bill law. "It was a great moment," King declared, "something like the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation by Abraham Lincoln."

Today, we cannot know exactly what Johnson and King, two coalition builders, would say about the efforts to portray them as civil rights rivals. But it is hard to imagine that both would not have seen comparisons that pit them against each other as inimical to the civil rights movement they believed in. As King observed of the struggle for racial justice in his "Letter from Birmingham Jail": "We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny."

Emmett Till case still being examined 53 years later

Though 53 years have passed, scholars are still looking into the brutal murder of teenager Emmett Till, according to an article in the Commercial Appeal of Columbus, Mississippi:

Truth is in the eye of the beholder.

But whose truth will you believe?

Mamie Till-Mobley, mother of Emmett Till, the black teen from Chicago, Ill., who was brutally slain in Money in 1955, said in a memoir, what mattered then was the color of the person telling the supposed truth.

A white lie was widely accepted over a black truth.

Perhaps, at the time of Till's murder - when he was beaten, tortured, murdered and thrown into a river - it was true.

Or perhaps it's the first public version of the “truth” we are inclined to believe.

In 1956, there were many theories on how and why Till was murdered.

But journalist William Bradford Huie introduced a new twist to the story - the confession of the two brothers accused of the murder.

‘Approved Killing'

“The Shocking Story of Approved Killing in Mississippi” ran in LOOK Magazine, introduced by the words, “Disclosed here is the true account of the slaying in Mississippi of a Negro youth named Emmett Till.”

Killers' confession

It was the truth according to J.W. Milam and Roy Bryant; both men had been found not guilty - by an all-white, all-male jury - of the murder in September of the previous year, just a month after Till's death.

Huie's truth, which introduced three new elements, according to Chris Metress, author of “The Lynching of Emmett Till: A Documentary Narrative,” has thrived through the decades.

In his story, which was compiled from a series of interviews with Milam and Bryant, Huie wrote Till had a picture of a white girl in his wallet bragging she was his girlfriend, Till was dared by cousins to ask Carolyn Bryant, Roy Bryant's wife, for a date and Till was killed for his defiance when asked by the brothers to deny he had a white girlfriend.

Metress, a Stamford University English professor, called this account the “dare-defiance narrative” as he spoke to an audience of about 60 people Thursday night during the second installment of a lecture series at the Columbus Public Library as part of the Emmett Till Traveling Exhibit.

‘Needed to be killed'

“Milam and Bryant's confession served to do two things - one, to make Emmett Till look like he needed to be killed by sexualizing him and all that,” he said. “And two, to cover the tracks of the other men involved.”

There were at least two other white men involved, Metress theorized, along with the three black men employed by Bryant, who were taken along to help in the killing and to clean up.

Most no longer accept the defiance aspect, said Metress, but the photo and the dare have become facts in the minds of many.

Till's own cousin, Curtis Jones, was filmed on the 1986 documentary “Eyes on the Prize” saying Till was dared to go into the store. Jones, said Metress, was not even in Mississippi at the time; he'd gotten the story from Huie.

In John Edgar Wideman's 1997 narrative, “The Killing of Black Boys,” he depicts Till as a magician, entertaining his friends, pulling the photo of a white girl from his wallet and then going into the store to perform his next act, asking a white woman on a date and then wolf whistling at her.

Five years later, Till's mother would introduce a fictional play to the world recreating the tragedy. In the play, noted Metress, Till again is said to have had a picture of a white woman in his wallet. Wallets in those days came with photos of movie stars in them, Till-Mobley maintained. And the play said he was, indeed, dared by cousins to talk to Carolyn Bryant.

Those two aspects of Huie's stories have remained mainstays in today's study of the case.

(Photo: Mamie Bradley at the funeral of her son, Emmett Till, in 1955

Rev. James Orange, leader of Selma March, dead at 65

Another legend of the civil rights movement, Rev. James Orange, died this week at age 65. Orange played a key role in the Selma March, which led to the Voting Rights Act of 1965:

Orange joined the movement in 1957 and was tapped by the Southern Christian Leadership Conference in 1965 to help organize in Alabama. Orange's arrest and incarceration that year triggered a night-time demonstration in which young Jimmie Lee Jackson was shot and killed by an Alabama state trooper.

Jackson's death was the catalyst for the Selma-to-Montgomery march that ended in Bloody Sunday and, eventually, passage of the federal Voting Rights Act.

A songster with a baritone voice that let all know he meant business, Orange could silence a Birmingham bar when King or the Rev. Ralph David Abernathy Sr., King's top aide, needed to be heard. King called Orange the movement's Ground Crew Leader.

"He was the kind of person who did the work and never took credit. But that didn't bother him," eulogized sister Marion Easley of Birmingham. "He's in heaven now, and guess what he's doing? He's organizing a march. And, oh, what a march!"

Orange organized, marched, got beaten and was jailed in Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, North Carolina, Illinois and beyond. Yet he returned to the front lines with his non-violent beliefs intact.

With the movement succeeding, and dwindling, Orange took his organizational talents to the Amalgamated Clothing and Textile Workers Union. Later, he served as a special representative of the AFL-CIO.

"He helped untold thousands of families walk through the doorway of opportunity," said Richard Trumka, the AFL-CIO's international secretary-treasurer.

Orange, though, never lost his civil-justice bones.

Starting in 1995, he organized the annual King Day march in Atlanta. In 2000, bullhorn in hand, he descended upon the Florida state Capitol to fight affirmative-action rollbacks. Orange even took his organizational talents to South Africa to rally alongside Nelson Mandela.

Civil rights icon Johnnie Carr dead at 97

Johnnie Carr, who joined childhood friend Rosa Parks in the Montgomery Bus Boycott and succeeded Martin Luther King as chairman of the Montgomery Improvement Association, died this week at age 97:

"Johnnie Carr is one of the three major icons of the Civil Rights Movement: Dr. King, Rosa Parks and Johnnie Carr," said Morris Dees, co-founder of the Southern Poverty Law Center. "I think ultimately, when the final history books are written, she'll be one of the few people remembered for that terrific movement."

As the Improvement Association's president, Carr helped lead several initiatives to improve race relations and conditions for blacks. She was involved in a lawsuit to desegregate Montgomery schools, with her then-13-year-old son, Arlam, the named plaintiff.

"She hadn't been sick up until she had the stroke," Arlam Carr said Saturday. "It was such a massive stroke that she never was able to recover from it. She was still very active — going around and speaking — but it was just one of those things."

She played a prominent role in 2005 on the 50th anniversary of Parks' refusal to give up her bus seat, speaking to thousands of schoolchildren who marched to the Capitol.

"Look back, but march forward," Carr urged the huge crowd of young people.

She also traveled to memorial services in Washington, where her eulogy of Parks was "really the most dynamic" moment, recalled Julian Bond, chairman of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.

"There were many people who spoke who were much better known ... but she carried the day," said Bond, who helped found the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee.

Just days before her stroke, Carr participated in King Day ceremonies in Montgomery, speaking after a parade. Admirers marveled at her energy and commitment into her 90s.

"She was always an encourager and not a divider," Mayor Bobby Bright told the Montgomery Advertiser. "She was just a loving person. She was truly the mother figure that we all so desperately needed in Montgomery during a very trying period of our history."

In a statement, Gov. Bob Riley said Carr was a "remarkable woman and will be deeply missed."

She was a true inspiration, Riley said, and "leaves behind a lasting legacy of pride, determination, and perseverance."

Friday, February 15, 2008

John Lewis reflects on the legacy of Martin Luther King

Original Freedom Rider and current Rep. John Lewis, D-Georgia, reflects on the legacy of Martin Luther King in an article in the current issue of Teaching Tolerance:

We have come a great distance in this nation since the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. The African-American middle class has grown. African Americans, women, and other minorities are in positions of leadership today that they could never have aspired to 40 years ago. In the 2008 election season, an African-American man is a serious contender for the Democratic nomination for president; so is a woman. In 1968, just these ideas would have been seen as highly unlikely, even dangerous.
There are more African-American elected officials today than we would have ever dreamed possible in 1968. Then, there were fewer than 50 black elected officials in the 11 Southern states of the Confederacy. Today there are over 8,000 all across the country, and Mississippi has more than any other state. Our whole society has been captivated by African-American megastars, like Oprah Winfrey, who dominate the cultural dialogue, influence stock trades, and lead by example as philanthropists and
humanitarians. On the other hand, there are still millions of black people in this country, and people of color across the globe, who are left out and left behind. There are still people who cannot afford to see doctors. We are still spending too many of our resources on war, instead of meeting basic human needs.
In 1968, this nation was engulfed in violence. Violence is accepted by too many in our society today as a means to silence opposition and difference. A culture of violence has sprung up among us that is gnawing at the soul of our society, a culture which justifies brutality, torture and cruelty. In 1968, we could not avoid the signs of overt racism and hatred in our daily lives. Forty years later, we are still reckoning with those same symbols of hate, whether through a noose hung on a tree in Jena, La., or on a professor's door at Columbia University.
In my estimation, the greatest speech Dr. King ever made was delivered at Riverside Baptist Church in New York City on April 4, 1967. I was there in the audience when he began by saying, "A time comes when silence is betrayal. … Even when pressed by the demands of inner truth, men do not easily assume the task of opposing their government's policy, especially in times of war." He was speaking then about the war in Vietnam. Forty years later, the fundamental assertions made in his speech apply to the war in Iraq today.
"A true revolution of values," he continued, "will soon cause us to question the fairness and justice of many of our past and present policies. … A true revolution of values will soon look uneasily on the glaring contrast of poverty and wealth … and say, ‘This is not just.' … A true revolution of values will lay hands on the world order and say of war, ‘This way of settling differences is not just.' … True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar. It comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring."
In 2008, we are still rediscovering the true meaning of our democracy. Democracy is not a state. It is not some high plateau that we struggle to reach so we can finally
settle down to rest. Democracy is an act. It is an act that requires participation, organization and dedication to the highest principles. It is an act, and a series of actions that require us to continuously verify our commitment to civil rights and social justice at every challenge. Above all, Martin Luther King, Jr. led by example and demonstrated this devotion with his life and his sacrifice. "Some of us who have already begun to break the silence of night," he said, "have found that the calling to speak is often a vocation of agony, but we must speak."
In the final analysis, we cannot deny that 40 years later, the dream of Martin Luther King, Jr. still has not been realized. We still have not reached the Promised Land that he described the night before he was killed in Memphis, Tenn. Are we closer to building the Beloved Community?
Are we closer to building a society based on simple justice that values the dignity and the worth of every human being? Yes, we are closer, but we still have a great distance we must travel before we build a Beloved Community, a nation and a world society at peace with itself.

Friday, February 8, 2008

Elizabeth Eckford recalls the days of the Little Rock NIne

Elizabeth Eckford, one of the Little Rock Nine, who integrated Central High School in Little Rock, Ark. in 1957, spoke of her experience Thursday night at the Kankakee, Ill. Public Library, according to an article in today's Kankaee Daily Journal:

"Every day we were slammed up against the lockers," said Eckford, recounting the harassment and name-calling she endured as part of a state struggle that would later jump-start a national civil rights movement.

Still, she said, though she spent most of her school day under constant threat -- despite the presence of a personal soldier/bodyguard -- it was during the last class of the day where she said she felt like she "really belonged."

That's because two white students befriended her in the speech class, at great personal risk to themselves and their families.

"Young people, when you see someone being harassed, you might not be strong enough to defend them," said Eckford. "But there's a lot in your power to do."

Because those students befriended Eckford with a few kind words, she said she was able to look forward to the last part of each day, giving her needed courage to carry on her individual struggle and that of the larger civil rights movement.

It's a message, she said, that should still resonate in hallways and classrooms nationwide today.

"If you reach out to someone who is being harassed, you become someone's hope, and I don't think I'm exaggerating. You help someone live another day."

(Photo by Kankakee Daily Journal)

NPR Archives added to Room 210 Civil Rights links

A nifty research tool for students exploring the Civil Rights Movement is the National Public Radio archives site, a link to which has been added in the collection of sites on the right hand side of this page.

NPR has been diligent over the years in interviewing those who played key roles in the movement and many of those are archived on this site. A handy search field enables you to type in a name and then usually find multiple broadcasts about that persons.

NPR also offers transcripts of the interviews, but charges a fee for those.

Today is deadline for first draft of civil rights research paper

Today is the deadline for the first draft of the 1,000-word civil rights research project for Mr. Randy Turner's eighth grade communication arts at South Middle School.
No penalties will be assessed for turning the paper in late if I receive it by 12 midnight at rturner229@hotmail.com.

All papers must include five sources, at least two of which must be books. Parenthetical references should be used.

Next Friday, Feb. 15, is the deadline for the multi-media portion of the project. Posters and collages will be put on the walls around the school as part of the observance of Black History Month.

Students will do oral presentations on their Civil Rights Movement topic next week.

We will watch the 1990 film "Separate but Equal," starring Sidney Poitier as Thurgood Marshall beginning Friday, Feb. 15, and continuing during the following week.

The annual Civil Rights Project will conclude Friday, Feb. 29, when the final draft of the 1,000 word research paper is due.