I was born in Birmingham, Alabama and grew up there. When Martin Luther King, Jr. was writing his “Letter from the Birmingham Jail,” I was four years old, playing on the linoleum floor of our old ramshackle house, or out under the pecan trees. We lived maybe two miles from the jail. Of course, at that age I had no idea that my city was the focal point of massive political and cultural changes, but what interests me, as I think back on my childhood, is how little that changed in the coming years. I was in college before I began to realize that I and my family had lived through something profoundly historic.
I was in sixth grade, I think, when the Birmingham schools were integrated — by court order, of course — and attending Elyton School, in the oldest part of the city. The neighborhood was already transitioning from white to black, and before integration the school was a kind of white island. I was used to that, since the same could be said of my neighborhood, a collection of twenty or so houses wedged between the interstate and a huge gravel pit, and facing (just across Arkadelphia Road) one of the largest all-black neighborhoods in Birmingham. But even so, integration struck me as pretty insignificant. I mean, I saw black people all the time, every day, so it wasn’t a big deal to have them in my classes.
For my mother there were, I suppose, more anxieties. From fifth through seventh grade I attended an “Enrichment Class,” as they called it, for smart kids, which is why I went to Elyton, which wasn’t my neighborhood school. In eighth grade, when that program was abolished, I was zoned to a school that (so I was told) would have had about seven hundred black kids and the five or six white kids from my tiny neighborhood. We ended up moving to an equally ramshackle house in another part of town where the schools had more white people than black, so I never had the experience of being very much in the minority at school.
But none of these events had much of an impact on me. Strangely, though I remember the Huntley-Brinkley Report being on TV each evening while my grandmother was cooking dinner, I never saw Dr. King, never saw the protestors or firehoses, never heard the name Bull Connor. I learned about all this in college. How and why my family managed the silence I’m not quite sure; but then, we were the sort of family who remained silent about almost everything. This particular silence strikes me as especially impressive and interesting, though. And perhaps, among those living through stressful times, not uncommon.