Ohioan Recalls Civil Rights Struggles in Birmingham

Listen to the Story

Americans are celebrating the life of Doctor Martin Luther King Junior, the civil rights leader whose followers brought tremendous change to the South. One of the places were Doctor King labored was Birmingham, Alabama, a city whose fabric included fire hoses, police dogs and Bull Connor. In the first in a series of recollections by Ohioans, a Birmingham native recalls what it was like growing up during the struggle for civil rights.

Ohio State University’s Earle Holland grew up in Birmingham in the turbulent 1960s where he had a unique view of the civil rights struggle. His father was the editorial page editor of the influential and some would say liberal newspaper The Birmingham News.

“In the South you had the Ku Klux Klan of course. This was the time when George Wallace was the governor of the state of Alabama and he had ridden to his success on the claim of segregation now, segregation forever. It was a very volatile time not only for the races in general but also for anyone who would take a stance which was against the norm,” Holland says.

Which is exactly what Holland’s father did.

“His job was to provide the editorial stance in the newspaper which at the time was to try to recognize the fact that the South was changing and the traditional attitudes segregationist attitudes, unequal attitudes among the races were on the way out and it was time to embrace a new way of thinking. That clearly was not an attitude that much of the population in the region agreed with.

Bombings at the homes of local civil rights leaders became so common that Birmingham became known as “Bombingham.” Holland says that death threats became a way of life.

“As the paper and his editorials took a tougher and tougher stance, the newspaper learned that the Klan had issued death threats against the senior leadership of the newspaper and at that point in time we ended up having three armed guards on the house,” Holland says. “It was a situation that most people were not experiencing at that time.”

It took the tragedy of the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing to shake Birmingham to its core. Four girls – Addie Mae Collins, Carole Robertson, Cynthia Wesley and Denise McNair – were killed. They had just finished Sunday school.

“It was a Sunday morning and suddenly dad got a phone call and I remember him grabbing his coat and rushing out the back door and saying to my mom very briefly, ‘They’ve bombed a church they’ve killed four kids.’ That was perhaps the most critical event in the racial strife in Birmingham. It galvanized the opposition against that kind of violence regardless of race.

Birmingham was forced to confront itself. And its people changed.

“I think the general consensus among Southerners is the problem was not so much about race but about change. That people were more fearful of change more than they were of actual mixing of the races, That may be fantasy on my part but based on my experiences, I think that’s what it was, that Southerners as a class, tend to be very comfortable in the way things are and do not to respond to change as an opportunity in the way we all hope we do.”

Earle Holland is Assistant Vice President for Research Communications at Ohio State University.

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