Kids in Birmingham 1963
Breaking Barriers and Sharing Stories
Current and former residents of the Magic City share their coming-of age-stories from the turbulent civil rights era.
Ann Jimerson remembers her amazement back in 2001 when she was walking through the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute and came upon a timeline display listing the major events of the civil rights movement. Because she had lived in Birmingham as a child from 1961 to 1964, the year 1963 immediately caught her attention.
Among the events that year was Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s arrival in Birmingham to lead a campaign to protest the city’s segregation laws—and his arrest on April 12; he wrote his famous “Letter from the Birmingham Jail” on April 16.
Ann Jimerson has collected more than 60 first-person accounts of people who watched civil rights history unfold while growing up in Birmingham.
In early May, during what came to be known and the Children’s Crusade, police used police dogs and high-pressured fire hoses to attack Black youths demonstrating peacefully against segregation.
On August 28, King delivered his famous “I Have a Dream” speech during the March on Washington D.C.
Then on September 15, white supremacists bombed the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church, killing four young Black girls and injuring others.
“I remember standing in front of the timeline on one of the walls there and walking back to get my mother and sister and I said, ‘1963. Can you believe all of that happened in 1963?’” Jimerson says.
I remember standing in front of the timeline on one of the walls there…I said, ‘1963. Can you believe all of that happened in 1963?
Fast forward to 2013, when festivities in the city celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Birmingham Campaign were taking place. That year, Jimerson says memories of the timeline at the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute inspired her to find a way to collect stories from 1963.
So in March 2013, Jimerson, who had spent years working in public health marketing, launched “Kids in Birmingham 1963,” a website where people of all races can share personal stories of growing up in Birminvgham as the civil rights movement exploded around them.
To start the site, Jimerson reached out to family, friends, the archivist at the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute, members of the media and others, asking anyone who was a child in Birmingham in 1963 to contribute stories. Soon, word of the website spread. “Then things just kind of went like wildfire that year because so many people were thinking about traveling back home again because of the anniversary commemoration,” she says.
Contributors to the site have come from all walks of life. Some participated in the movement. Others witnessed it. They include writers and editors such as Diane McWhorter, Howell Raines, Harold Jackson, and Carol Nunnelley, as well as educators, attorneys, business leaders, and many others.
“We ended up with 50 people by the end of that first year and now we’re closer to 65 people who have told their story,” Jimerson says. “Some stumbled upon us, but that’s really rare. It usually takes a little bit of coaxing to get people to want to post a story.”
One Kids in Birmingham 1963 contributor is Texas resident Dale Long, a retired outreach coordinator and public information officer for the city of Dallas Public Works Department.
Long describes how he and his younger brother, Ken, survived when Ku Klux Klan members bombed the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church where both boys were attending in 1963. The story was published as part of the 2003 book Where I Come From, by Dallas Morning News reporter Bryan Woolley.
Long—who was 12 years old in 1963—talks about how he made his way out of the church, through the smoke, dust, and debris—and the terror he experienced when he couldn’t find Ken. He also describes the relief of family members upon learning that both boys survived the blast unscathed, and the sorrow of learning that four of his church mates were dead.
At age 12, Dale Long survived a bomb attack at the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham.
Earlier that year, on May 11, white supremacists had bombed the Black-owned A.G. Gaston Motel where Long’s father worked, he says.
“My grandmother tried to explain to us why bad things happen to good people and that we weren’t doomed because we were Black, and that there was an abundance of opportunities for us,” he says.
She instructed her grandsons to pray, walk uprightly and get an education, Long says.
“But then she added something after we found out about the deaths of the girls. She said, ‘God spared you for a reason; it could have been four little boys instead of four little girls. So make it a point to dedicate your lives to doing for others.’”
She said, ‘God spared you for a reason; it could have been four little boys instead of four little girls. So make it a point to dedicate your lives to doing for others.’
Long says he has followed his grandmother’s advice and spent the last 47 years working as a volunteer mentor with the Big Brothers Big Sisters organization in Dallas. He also joined a number of boards and was a founding member of the Garland, Texas NAACP.
“I wanted to be a part of Kids in Birmingham 1963 because I wanted to share my story in order to preserve history,” Long says.
Dale Long, a Kids in Birmingham storyteller, has spent his adult life volunteering and mentoring youths in Dallas, Texas.
Kids in Birmingham contributor Katherine Ramage of Berkeley, California, was 11 years old in 1963. She vividly remembers what happened on Easter Sunday that year after her father, the Rev. Edward Vandiver Ramage of First Presbyterian Church in Birmingham and proponent of desegregation, announced that he would open the doors of the all-white congregation to people of all races.
That Easter morning, two Black women visited the church, much to the consternation of many of the congregants. Afterward, some members of the church’s ruling body clashed with Ramage and formed a splinter group within the congregation.
Kids storyteller Katherine Ramage was 11 years old in 1963 when her minister father opened the doors of his church to people of all races.
“It was a pivotal moment for my father because he took a stance that the doors of the church would remain open to anyone who wanted to come worship there,” says Ramage. “It also encapsulates most aspects of my experience during the civil rights movement.”
Ramage recalls that her father faced not only ire and accusations from congregants, but also threats of physical harm from the White Citizens Council and the Ku Klux Klan, as well as menacing phone calls from strangers vowing to harm his children. On some occasions, unknown persons even set traps meant to make him crash his car, she says.
In April of 1963, Rev. Ramage became one of eight moderate Alabama clergymen to write and sign a letter addressed to Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., who had been arrested and jailed, asking him to hold off on further civil rights demonstrations in Birmingham—the trigger for King’s famous response in a letter, defending his decision to move forward.
Katherine Ramage recalls that her father faced threats of physical harm from the White Citizens Council and the Ku Klux Klan.
“I don’t remember my dad talking about that letter at all,” she says. But she has since delved into the letter and the circumstances surrounding it; and while it is hard to know what was in each signatory’s head, she says her dad worried about the welfare of the demonstrators at a time when Bull Connor, Birmingham’s brutal, segregationist police commissioner, was still in office.
“I’m quite certain that when my father was talking about slowing down, he wanted everything to slow down until Bull Connor got out of office and somebody else got in who wasn’t so violent and wasn’t such an ardent racist. I think he had protection of the Black community and the white community in mind when he wrote and signed that letter.”
But by November of 1963, Rev. Ramage, after 19 years of pastoring the Birmingham church, had had enough. He and the family packed up and moved to Houston.
Jimerson says her desire to collect the stories stems partly from knowing that her own father, the Rev. Norman “Jim” Jimerson, played a part in the civil rights movement.
The elder Jimerson moved the family to Birmingham in 1961 to become executive director of the Alabama Council on Human Relations and to open lines of communication between Black civil rights leaders and activists and leaders in the white communities.
Jimerson says her father had grown up during the Great Depression, and his mother was widowed at a young age. Poverty and hard times followed. “I don’t know if he had some kind of awakening along the way. It wasn’t like his family was particularly progressive or anything. But he just always wanted to serve people.”
It took six months for Rev. Jimerson to convince his wife to move to Birmingham, Ann Jimerson says.
The Jimerson children in 1963 faced threats from neighbors opposing racial integration. From left to right, Randy, Ann, Mark (in Ann’s arms), Paul and Susan Jimerson.
“From the time dad first started bringing home news about what was going on in the Deep South, we thought of it, at least in my mind, as akin to being a missionary and we were going into dangerous territory,” she says.
“He gave me credit with being the one who said, ‘If it’s that bad, we have to go.”
Moving to Alabama was an adjustment for the family, Jimerson says. They settled in a home in Homewood, a suburb of Birmingham. By then she, the second oldest of four children, was starting fifth grade.
“Even though we had moved from Massachusetts to Virginia and thought that we were already in the South, there was something deeper South about going to Homewood. I can remember walking up the street to visit with a little girl who lived on the corner. She said words like ‘Co Cola’ instead of Coca Cola so there was a bit of a language difference.”
But the family faced severe pushback from whites who resented Jimerson’s efforts to facilitate dialogue between the races. The threatening phone calls came frequently.
“People had our telephone number, so they would just call up and sometimes they would just breathe on the phone. Sometimes it was a man speaking, but they never identified themselves, saying things like, ‘We know that your dad has a Black’ – only they wouldn’t use the word Black – ‘secretary and we can’t have that.’” Jimerson says.
People had our telephone number, so they would just call up and sometimes they would just breathe on the phone.
Her younger brother, Paul, was especially sad after learning that even his Cub Scout den mother made one of the threatening calls, she says.
In addition to the anonymous threats, the Jimersons were told by leaders of the Vestavia Hills Baptist Church that people would be happier if the family stopped attending services there.
“It was clear that we were treading on sensitive ground,” Jimerson says.
Soon, the couple instructed their children to not talk about what Rev. Jimerson did for a living. “It was easy enough to do because we could just say he was a pastor and let it go at that,” she says. “So we were pretty cautious.”
For the Kids in Birmingham 1963 website, Jimerson tells the story of her family’s reaction to the bombing of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church.
Suddenly I imagined an art piece I would create to honor the girls who were killed in the bombing.
Following the bombing, Rev. Jimerson brought home pieces of the stained glass that shattered in the blast. Shortly thereafter, when her seventh-grade art teacher, Miss Lemon, announced an upcoming art lesson using glass to make mosaics, Jimerson got an idea. “Suddenly I imagined an art piece I would create to honor the girls who were killed in the bombing,” she writes. “I needed that glass.” So she begged her mother for a few pieces of the stained glass from the church, promising that the glass would retain its color and shape, and her mother allowed her to select a few shards.
Jimerson describes her anxiety at the thought of telling her art teacher where the glass came from—an act of hatred perpetrated on girls her own age who happened to be Black. “No one at our all-white junior high school had talked with us about the bombing,” she writes. “No one, kids or teachers, had expressed the outrage we were allowed to acknowledge at home.”
Stained glass from the bombed Sixteenth Street Baptist Church. “No one at our all-white junior high school had talked with us about the bombing.”
Concerned that Miss Lemon might dismiss her idea, she approached the art teacher cautiously. “As I carefully opened the cigar box, my eyes stung with tears and my voice caught and I stumbled over words as I tried to tell her how I had come by the holy glass,” she writes. “She grasped my meaning and fell respectfully silent. I knew she felt the power of these shards too. Maybe it hadn’t been safe for her, either, to be outraged, but we shared that private moment of compassion and shame. I thank her still for allowing me to tell the whole truth.”
… my eyes stung with tears and my voice caught and I stumbled over words as I tried to tell her how I had come by the holy glass.
Jimerson says the Kids in Birmingham contributors continue to stay in touch through a group called Kids Connect, which meets monthly for discussions on a variety of social-justice and human-rights topics, as well as fun activities such as yoga.
“We all grew up in the same area, sometimes within a few miles of each other,” says Jimerson, “but we couldn’t have known each other because of segregation. Today we’re in our 60s or 70s, and we have found each other.”
Kids in Birmingham 1963 is now a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization with two aims, she says. The first is figuring out how to do a better job of teaching Birmingham’s civil rights history. So far, some members of Kids have formed an education team and are talking with stakeholders in education around Jefferson County to generate ideas. Already, some schools around the country have used the website’s content for their lesson plans.
The second aim is reconciliation. So the group is teaming up with nonprofits such as the Jefferson County Memorial Project, which educates residents about the history of racial terror in the county. Through these collaborations, Kids in Birmingham 1963 wants to create a communications campaign that will encourage conversations about race across the races.
“We think the model that we’ve come up with could be replicated in other places,” Jimerson says. “We feel that it could make a big difference throughout the country.”