No heroes on 16th Street

Nobody has won these people's trust

Issue: "Attack and dissent," May 19, 2001

It wasn't just a typical Wednesday night prayer meeting last week at Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Ala. Fact is, it's been years since the church held a regular Wednesday night meeting of any kind there. But last Wednesday, the place was so busy that police roped off the streets for blocks around.

Sixteenth Street Baptist Church was much in the news because only a few hours earlier, a federal jury had convicted 62-year-old Thomas E. Blanton Jr. of murder in the 1963 bombing of the church and the killing of four young girls. I was in town for a meeting the next day, so I thought I'd drive by and see where this awful but historic thing had happened.

I was by no means the only reporter to show up. Half a dozen TV stations had their mobile units in position and their antennas up, ready to cover an all-night candlelight prayer vigil, billed on the long oilcloth banners as "A TIME OF REFLECTION AND RECONCILIATION." The event wasn't going to start until 8 p.m., but the six o'clock newscasts were all pumping the rally by providing live, dinner-time coverage.

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I saw almost no one who looked very official, except for a man adjusting some papers on the podium. Wondering if he might be the pastor, I asked a black woman standing near me if she knew. "Oh, no," she replied. "That church hasn't had a pastor for a long time."

"Why not?" I asked.

"They don't get along real well," she told me. And then, from her, from a fellow I took to be her friend who joined our conversation, and from a variety of other locals came a surprisingly bleak evaluation of the whole event. These folks were cynical-cynical about whites, cynical about the media's presence, cynical about the police, and cynical about their own black leaders.

The cynicism about whites did not surprise me. Why should it have been otherwise? Indeed, what surprised me was how open and cordial Vera Brown and Otis Jackson were with me. They seemed to take for granted that I wanted the party line-and they were reluctant to give it. They assumed that I wanted to have them say this was a great victory, a notable turning point, and that justice delayed is still better than justice altogether denied.

What they wanted to say instead was that even if all the suspects in the case-one of the four was dead, one had been convicted earlier, and another had been declared mentally incompetent-had died in Alabama's electric chair, it would barely have touched the real wrongs. The real wrongs, they said, were that nobody cared about the much more devastating bombings inner-city Birmingham has sustained through the years. Those bombings have been economic, educational, social, and spiritual. People who had gotten very exercised about a bomb that killed four little girls tended to walk away from a city where death of another kind has destroyed tens of thousands.

"And you blame the white folks of Birmingham?" I asked Vera and Otis.

"I'm not saying they did it," Vera said. "But they went the other way. They moved out to Highway 280. They don't care much."

But my informants were equally dismissive of the media all around us, and of the Birmingham police-both white and black-leading big bomb-

sniffing dogs around the church. "They're busybodies," Vera said. Then she pointed to the ABC anchorwoman half a dozen paces from us: "You notice they're not talking to us like you are. They don't want the real story. They haven't wanted the real story for 35 years."

"What's the real story?" I knew she wanted me to ask.

"The real story? The real story is that the blacks in this church never cared for us either. They were all rich blacks here, but they're all gone too. They didn't care any more for us folks in the city than the white folks did. See that gas station down the street there? A black dude owns that-but don't kid yourself that it's mostly gas they sell there. That's the biggest drug joint in town. Everybody knows it. It's destroying what little's left of this neighborhood, and it's black people who are doing it." I couldn't tell which of several convenience stores she meant, but half a dozen folks who had joined our conversation nodded their agreement with Vera.

I stuck around for the start of the prayer vigil. But the speeches I heard there, and then again a few hours later on the late local news in my motel room, seemed remote, plastic, and detached.

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