At the height of the civil rights movement, Amos Townsend and Randall Jimerson were growing up in Birmingham, Alabama, the city that Martin Luther King, Jr. had referred to as “the most segregated city in America.” Since one was black and the other white, the two boys never met, each sheltered in his own race-defined community. But both were deeply touched by the violent and exhilarating events around them in the early 1960s. Fifty years later, they come together to report on what that experience was like for each of their families and how it shaped each of their lives. With today’s young people in mind, they share their lifelong commitment to justice.
Amos Townsend, born in Birmingham, attended Lincoln Elementary School from 1958 to 1966. He speaks eloquently now of growing up during the turmoil of the civil rights movement. Mr. Townsend recalls that by 1963, “The Year of Birmingham,” he was forced to become more aware of race-based hatred, beyond “the grinding heel of racism we had faced all our lives.” He felt fear at seeing “public safety” commissioner Bull Connor riding around in a white tank ordering his neighbors off the streets after racists bombed Attorney Arthur Shores’ home. They had felt the blasts in their homes during the night. “But nothing prepared me, or us as children,” he writes, “to feel the utter terror that came that fateful Sunday morning when our friends were killed and others injured at the 16th Street Baptist Church. As we completed Sunday School at Saint Joseph Baptist Church, we were startled as we felt the effects of the bombing at 16th Street, as our church was 10-12 blocks away. As the news spread of what had happened and the deaths of our friends, it brought a whole new but strange reality to me. My childhood innocence was forever erased as I came to understand that hatred had eliminated the only ‘sanctuary’ in my life, which was the safety and reassurance of the church.”
A student at Parker High School from 1966 to 1968, and September 1969 until May 1970. For his junior year, he attended Ramsay High School from September 1968 until May 1969 under the George Wallace "Freedom of Choice" program. This program, instituted by Governor George Wallace, permitted students to enroll in any school as long as they could get there on their own. The program allowed the state to make the claim that schools were integrated although they would do no busing to achieve integration. He completed his B.S. and M.A. at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. A retired Senior Executive from the Federal government, Mr. Townsend lives in Burtonsville, MD.
Randall C. Jimerson has just written Shattered Glass in Birmingham, tracing the experiences of a white northern family during the climax of the civil rights movement. Randy was 12 years old when his father became the only fulltime white civil rights worker in Alabama. The family settled in Birmingham in 1961 just after the Freedom Riders were beaten and stayed through the Children’s Crusade, the bombing of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church, and the assassination of JFK. As a young teenager, Randy’s eyes were wide open as he learned to navigate a hostile environment and became “a child of the Movement.”
His book is a gripping personal story of ostracism, threats, intimidation, and violence experienced by a family dedicated to justice and equality. Based on extensive archival research, as well as oral histories and personal memory, Shattered Glass in Birmingham gives the reader a ground-level view of prejudice, discrimination, violence, and courage.
Randall C. Jimerson, professor of history and director of the Graduate Program in Archives and Records Management at Western Washington University in Bellingham, Washington, is the author of The Private Civil War: Popular Thought during the Sectional Conflict (1988), and Archives Power: Memory, Accountability, and Social Justice (2009). He is a former president of the Society of American Archivists.
Shattered Glass in Birmingham traces the experiences of a white northern family during the climax of the civil rights movement in Alabama's largest city. Recounted primarily from Randall Jimerson's perspective as one of five children of Reverend Norman C. "Jim" Jimerson, executive director of the Alabama Council on Human Relations, the narrative explores the public and private impact of the civil rights struggle. Based on extensive archival research as well as oral histories, Shattered Glass in Birmingham offers the reader a ground-level view of prejudice, discrimination, violence, and courage.
In 1961 the Alabama Council on Human Relations charged Rev. Jimerson with the critical task of improving communications and racial understanding between Alabama's black and white communities, employing him to travel extensively throughout the state to coordinate the activities of Human Relations chapters across Alabama. Along the way, he developed close working relationships with black and white ministers, educators, and businessmen and served as an effective bridge between the communities.
Rev. Jimerson's success as a community activist was due largely to his ability to gain the trust of both white moderates and key figures in the civil rights movement: Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth, Dr. Lucius Pitts, Rev. Ralph Abernathy, Rev. Wyatt T. Walker, Rev. Andrew Young, and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. He represents the hundreds of people who worked behind the scenes to help achieve the goals of civil rights activists.
After Klan members killed four young girls in the bombing of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in September 1963, Rev. Jimerson preserved several pieces of stained glass that had blown out of the church's windows. Similarly, Shattered Glass in Birmingham offers us a fresh and important perspective on these climactic events, supplying one of the many fragments that make up the complex story of our nation's fight for civil liberties.