On June 26th, Thomas Blanton died in prison at age 82 of natural causes. While his name didn’t mean anything to me, the headline caught my eye. He was the last remaining living klansman convicted in the 1963 bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church. The brutal attack that took the lives of four young girls, and left a fifth with scars she carries every day.
I have lived in Birmingham for over two decades, and it’s one of only two places I have called home. I am very proud of my city and of the growth and progress I’ve witnessed especially over recent years. Every city…community…person…has things from their past that contain painful memories. And, ideally, you take these life events and learn from them. And, to borrow a phrase used for other acts that have altered the world we live in every day, never forget.
To say that Thomas Blanton’s death closes a chapter in Birmingham’s history wouldn’t be fair. That chapter will never close for the people that were involved. Sure, there won’t need to be any more parole hearings or other proceedings and maybe that will help in some small way. But it does mark a point on the timeline. And that typically comes with an opportunity to reflect…was this occurrence used as an opportunity for growth? On a personal level? On a community level? On a national level?
So, as I was reading this article, I thought about what we could tell those four young girls. Could we tell them that although it took 37 years to hold the parties responsible for this merciless action, we have traveled an incredible societal distance since 1963? Could we tell them that this vicious act that cut their lives far too short had been used as an example of how not to act for people in 2020? Does Sarah Collins Rudolph, the “fifth little girl”, feel that this senseless attack and the tremendous loss and disability that accompanied it, has helped make people realize that the color of a person’s skin is not an indicator of their worth?
And that is when the myriad of emotions I had been experiencing bubbled to the surface. First and foremost, overwhelming sadness. All the names that had been filling all of our newsfeeds over the past several weeks…Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, George Floyd…and those were just the ones that made the news. Lives cut short. Victims…not of a church bombing, but of acts seemingly fueled by the same ignorance and refusal to accept the basic tenet that all men are created equal. Sadness coupled with hopelessness, that if the pointless deaths of four young girls can’t be the example that changes our actions, what will?
Intermingled with the sadness came shame. Or possibly guilt. Probably a combination of the two. I am a middle-aged, divorced, professional white female. While the Catholic upbringing may explain the guilt, I was still left with the question…could I have done more? And where do I go from here? But, I have plenty of African-American friends! Isn’t that what I am supposed to say to make myself feel better? But what do I say to my friends who go out every day and have to know that their mere appearance has already caused some people to make an assumption about what kind of person they are? How do I address the fear that has become a permanent part of their daily routine, for themselves or for their family members? What do I do about the shame I feel because of the color of my skin?
This weekend, we celebrated our country’s independence. And, like many many others, I took advantage of the opportunity to watch Hamilton. I had heard the music, read the reviews, but never had the chance to see it. And I was absolutely blown away, for so many reasons. Here was an extremely talented group of racially diverse people telling me the story of my beloved country, the best country in the world. And it seems so obvious…our founding fathers came together to create a new democracy. States that would be united, a more perfect union to be exact. There is no illusion that these men agreed with each other about everything, but they came together to make something better…more perfect. Not perfect. And while I know that those rooms were filled with white haired Caucasian men, the story I was told through Hamilton seemed…right.
I’ve been told in the past that perfect is the enemy of good. And while I have always applied that to my career, I think it fits well in all facets of life. Our country isn’t perfect. Americans aren’t perfect. And we never will be. But, maybe we should just try being good. Especially to each other.
It is Favorable to liberty. Freedom can exist only in the society of knowledge. Without learning, men are incapable of knowing their rights, and where learning is confined to a few people, liberty can be neither equal nor universal.Benjamin Rush, Founding Father; 1786