There were no injuries when a bomb exploded inside of Bethel Baptist Church. It was 1963 and I was seven years old. I remember clinging to mommy outside of our house and wondering why everyone from the neighborhood was outside crying and screaming. Mommy and I clung to each other like shadows for days.
One of the most interesting things I remember about being born is what I have been told. When I was born, mommy made it very clear to daddy and anyone else who bothered to ask, that she wanted me to have a name that would send a message to the world. Daddy said, “I thought she was out of it from just having a baby and all.” Over the next few days folks would stop in the room to see if mommy had named me. Mommy would make it very clear, “This is my child and I will take my time naming her!”
On September 22, 1954, when mommy named me Hope there were many sighs of relief. My grandparents were excited, joking that they were just relieved that I had been named something before it was time for me to go to school. There were whispers at the nurse’s station, “Imagine her naming her baby Hope! Who ever heard of any colored child name Hope?” But it didn’t matter what was muttered, mommy made sure to write out my full name for the birth certificate, “So there won’t be no mistake about her name. Hope Viola Grant. Her name says she is special!”
I was mommy’s hope and the hope of future generations. When older folks heard my name some would smile and make all sorts of comments, saying things like, “Well good Lord, that is such a beautiful name,” or “Child you is surely blessed with that name! Hope, ain’t that something.” I would smile and wonder what the big deal was over my name. But as I got older I came to embrace the special meaning of my name. I learned that hope was a small word with big possibilities. Later I would fall in love with what hope could do for my spirit, that behind pain and fear, hope offered light.
The 1950s in Birmingham was a time when folks, blacks and whites, lived and breathed hope in spite of the evil that insisted on suffocating the good will out of it. Without hope, I imagine the spirits of many would have perished. Hope made folks feel invincible, like there was a reason for living.
I will always remember a particular Saturday morning. I must have been about eight years old. Phyllis was six and Ophelia was four. We stood in the kitchen watching daddy read the newspaper, waiting for him to answer us. In the sweetest of pleas I had asked him if we could go to Lookout Amusement Park. Since daddy was usually the one who always said, “yes,” to most of the things we wanted to do, we waited to hear him say it this time.
Daddy didn’t look at us. He turned the page of the newspaper, placed in on the table and slowly poured his coffee from the saucer back into his cup. Phyllis and Ophelia looked at me as if I had the answer. I shifted my weight from one leg to the other and watched the sun filter in above daddy’s head. For some reason I imagined a halo. The clothesline squeaked and I looked towards the back door and wondered when mommy would come in from hanging clothes. I fingered a piece of string until it fell to the floor forming a perfect O. Daddy picked up his paper and looked at us. Daddy was a big man with a gentle voice and mommy was a little woman with a voice that could boom louder than a lot of men. I watched the expression on his face go from calm to grim. He scanned the kitchen as if he were seeing it for the first time. The clothesline stopped squeaking and I waited for mommy to come inside. Daddy pushed his cup away and told us to have a seat, motioning for Ophelia to sit on his lap.
Mommy came inside humming. Ophelia blurted out, “Mommy, we just asked daddy if we can go to Lookout Amusement Park!” Mommy eased down onto a chair and stared at daddy. Then as if someone had wound me up, my words running out I said, “Oh please daddy can we go, can we go?” For a second I thought I saw the beginning of a smile creep across daddy’s face. Then he motioned for me to come to him. Mommy was looking down at the table. I started rubbing daddy’s hair. It was thick and wavy, the smell making me think of warm soap.
I started wondering if he was going to tell us no because of the big meeting coming up at the church. It seemed like there was always some cause or problem that needed daddy’s leadership. Daddy had a way of diffusing disagreements and calming folks down when many simply wanted to take to the streets and fight. So when daddy looked at each of us and said, “We can’t go to Lookout Amusement Park. Not today. Not tomorrow.” I didn’t understand. His hands started shaking and he clenched his mouth. It was the first time I ever seen daddy like this.
Phyllis blurted out, “Why daddy? Why can’t we go? Why daddy?” Mommy stroked her little head and kissed the side of her face and started to say something when daddy held up his hand and said, “Baby, we have talked about this. Remember we talked about Jim Crow and why colored people are not allowed to go to certain places or use the same entrance?”
Daddy looked at me like he really needed me to remember. I did. But I couldn’t help wanting to hear him say that we could go. As much as I hated Jim Crow I still couldn’t say it. I wanted anything to fill up the silence and block out what I had just heard daddy say. Without looking up Phyllis said, “White people call us names.”
I looked from mommy to daddy. Mommy looked mad enough to curse, something she only did at home. Daddy took a deep breath and said, “Some folks just don’t know any better. Not all white folks call us names sweetie. Some of them just don’t want us to have the same rights as them.”
I didn’t know what to say. While I knew that there were places that we as colored people could not go, this was the first time it hit me hard. Daddy got up from the table and walked to the window, standing with his back to us. He had said what needed to be said and I didn’t think he was going to say any more. I wanted mommy to go over to him and do the one thing that I always like to see her do, which was to put her arms around his shoulders and bury her face in his neck. It always made me smile. But she sat staring at the wall of pots and pans like she wanted to hit something. My head felt like a balloon that had been pumped with too much air. Then I felt a tear creeping down my face. I burst out crying. Something had been snatched away from me before I could even enjoy it. If I felt like this I imagined that all of the colored children I went to school with felt the same way. Daddy came over and took me in his arms and held me so tight I saw myself disappearing into a dream where little colored children got everything they wanted. Finally he said, “Hope, I don’t want you crying over this. I don’t want to see any of my babies crying over something we can’t do anything about. Things will not be like this forever. One day you’ll see. So you just stop crying.”
Mommy jumped up from the table and yelled,” Lenwood, they are only children. It is normal for children to cry over things they can’t understand, like why they can’t go to an amusement park! Hell, even I feel like crying. Just the thought that we have to sit here and tell our children that just because they are not white they can’t go somewhere makes me sick! Yes, by God it is something for all of us to cry about and then get good and mad and do something about it!” Then she ran out the back door and smoked for what seemed like hours. I left the kitchen that morning looking at skin color in a brand new way. That was the day I had my first introduction to evil.
I didn’t ask to go any place for the rest of the summer. I didn’t want to know what other things were off limits to me. But I watched white folks differently whenever they didn’t realize I was watching them. I tried to see if there was something in them that would explain why they treated us the way they did. I wondered if it was in the food they ate that made some of them so mean. I just couldn’t get the picture of them and me not being allowed at the same place out of my head. My sisters and I, just like the rest of my school and church friends, were just children who wanted to play and have fun. I loved my brown skin. I thought brown was a soothing color. I wondered how anyone could hate something so beautiful. What really bothered me was how people with so much hate for another could have so many rights. It just didn’t make any sense. If what Reverend Brigsby preached about good winning over evil, than this just didn’t make sense to me.
It was amazing though how we much fun we still had in the summer running through the water sprinklers, playing tag, hide-and-go seek, double Dutch and hop scotch. I remember mommy coming outside one afternoon after a bunch of us had been running and sweating and saying, “See you can all have just as good a time here as any place else.” In that moment I was happy. I knew what mommy meant. One day Phyllis asked me, “Hope what are you always thinking about?” I told her that I was wondering how long it was going to take for colored folks to have the same rights as white folks here in Birmingham. She nodded her head like she understood and said, “When it happens, I guess,” and ran off to play leaving me alone to untangle more of my thought about race. Still it felt like summer of 1964 was longer than previous summers.
I could always tell when something was bothering daddy. When I got older I called it our radar to each other’s heart. I could look at his face and feel like were sharing the same thoughts. Daddy had been serious about helping colored folks every since he was a young boy. He was known for wanting to bring people together to achieve things. There were many nights when mommy would sit up half the night, or pace the rooms waiting to hear the car pull into the driveway. Some nights I would lie in bed waiting too. When he came in sometimes he would start talking, saying, “We just have to keep the determination to do what we have to do to change things for us colored folks!” Mommy thought about the consequences and the danger that came with it.
The meetings daddy coordinated moved through the neighborhood getting otherwise placid folks involved. It was a fact though that those who chose to walk and cross the line for justice knew it was a matter of life and death. My wanting to be active in the ‘struggle’ outweighed my concerns about daddy. But before daddy left for any meeting, he would gather all of us up and say, “Remember no matter whatever happens I love you to death.” The death part scared me, but I would just nod and say, “I love you too daddy.” Then I would stand at the door watching him get in the car and pull away. One day I overheard mommy say on the phone, “I care about civil rights, but let me tell you something,” there was pause, “If anybody ever does anything to one of my children or my husband they might as well go ahead and lynch me because I will kill somebody over my babies and my husband!”
All kinds of constraints were being tossed around the civil rights struggle. But as tired and frustrated as daddy appeared to be he kept moving towards, “a new day.” This was one of several mantras, scriptures and such daddy would pronounce around the house.
The first night I had trouble sleeping was one of many to follow. I tossed and tossed listening to Phyllis’ snoring in the next room. After a while her snoring felt like music with highs and lows in strange places. When I finally fell asleep I saw a blue and green snake sitting on the floor in front of the coffee table. I screamed and dropped the pictures I had been cutting out. I could hear people in other parts of the house, but no came to help me. The snake crawled across the table and I ran out of the room. I ran through the house looking for anybody but no one was home. When I went back into the room the snake was moving under a yellow cloth and it disappeared. The next thing I felt was mommy shaking me to, “Wake up Hope! Wake up!” Daddy, Phyllis and Ophelia were standing there looking at me. I had scared everyone. The next morning I couldn’t keep anything in my stomach. I stayed in bed scared to go to sleep and too tired to stay awake. Phyllis and Ophelia tried to make me laugh but I could tell that they were scared and didn’t know what to say. I tried to hold a smile and laugh some, but the image of the snake slithering across the table would not leave my mind. It was at least three days before I started feeling better.
I let the summer nights pull me along the backyard and up and down the street catching lightning bugs with my sisters, and listening to Miss Jessie tell stories. Miss Jessie was the oldest and longest living person on Western Avenue. Mommy and daddy called Miss Jessie a walking history book, “a reminder of just how far we had come.” So we would sit on Miss Jessie’s porch watching her puff on her pipe, sip from her cup, and listen to her say things that only she understood. She had never had any children but called all of us her children. When she told us her mother and father had been born a few years after the Emancipation I asked mommy and daddy what it meant. Daddy’s eyes teared up and he said, “It was the end of slavery, baby!” Miss Jessie told us, “I am all for integration but we should always find glory in being with our own people.” I wondered what things could change and how long it would take, or if change was just a word that only white folks controlled. The justice that everyone spoke about seemed so far away.
On the morning that daddy and mommy boarded the bus for the March on Washington, Phyllis, Ophelia and I were asleep at Mrs. Cates’ house. I had begged daddy to let me go. But he told me over and over, “Hope, it’s just not your time baby.” I wondered when my time would be, and how would I know? Mrs. Cates was in the kitchen frying chicken, making potato salad and baking a cake. All this was to be just for us while we sat in front of the television watching the March. Since Mr. Cates had gone to the March Mrs. Cates was happy to have us stay with her. She had moved the table so we could watch the March from the dining room. The table was set with a white tablecloth, with each dish placed in the center of the table. Once she had us all seated we said grace and she turned the station to the March. I had never seen so many people at one time. We ate and listened to Mrs. Cates laugh and point to the television and say things like, “ I bet if those white folks in Washington had known that this many colored folks was going to be putting their feet in that there pool they would have surely found some way to stop this march.” When Dr. Martin Luther King was introduced everyone yelled, clapped and jumped up and down, Mrs. Cates pushed her plate aside and leaned forward and motioned for us to be quiet. I leaned into the television hoping to see mommy and daddy. I tried to follow what Dr. King was saying. I wondered how he could speak in front of so many people. I would have been terrified. When he said the part about one day every one sitting down together at the table of brotherly love, I wondered if that was why so many of us were sitting at lunch counters refusing to leave until we were served. People in the crowd cried, hugged, while some just stood watching. Mrs. Cates jumped up and started clapping and wiping the tears from her face, saying, “That’s right! Oh Lord, yes! Yes, one day, dear God, one day!” Phyllis and Ophelia looked at me. Then they went back to eating. I went back to listening to Dr. King and the crowd.
Mommy and daddy came back from the March exhausted and excited. I wanted to hear all about Dr. King. Daddy said that it was too many people to even try to get to Dr. King. But he knew where we had come from. I continued to watch white folks for any kind of change. But while it had been a year since Birmingham had been desegregated, there was no law that said white folks had to open their heart to civility. This was obvious every time we went shopping and they gave us the ugly eye and one of them would call us coons or niggers. Civil rights workers who were in the trenches kept singing, “Ain’t gonna let nobody turn me around,” even while they were being hosed and threatened with attack dogs. When my time came to be in the movement I wasn’t sure if I would be able to sing those words. I had yet to be spit on or pushed around by anyone. At the time I could not imagine what I would do.
Until Mrs. Baker came along, school was the one place where I didn’t feel like I needed to think about race. Mrs. Baker had been educated at some of the best schools in the country. We were constantly reminded how fortunate we were to have such an educated colored educator. Overnight it seemed like every aspect of our studies was imbued with current events and analogies about race relations. Mrs. Baker claimed that this was a much more effective way for young minds to absorb information, that Negro children needed to know where they came from to be educated about this moment in time. Each day began with a reference to a current local or national event or issue. Our homework was always to go home and discuss the topic with our parents and come back the next day prepared to share what we had learned.
I loved math, and enjoyed watching Mrs. Baker write problems on the blackboard. We all came to understand that the mathematical problem had to be worked on and solved using historical references, as this was, ”relative to everyday circumstances, if you just stop to think.” She engaged us with the creation of Adam and Eve, as well as the Civil War, Reconstruction and the Depression. I loved how Mrs. Baker’s hand moved quickly across the board, her bracelets jingling. At first I had trouble keeping up, but once I read up on historical events, it began to make sense. Mrs. Baker had tied history, math and geography all together in one comprehensive lesson. There was the day that she had no sooner stopped stating a point about the design of a multiplication table, that she walked to the back of the class and instructed all of us to look out the window. We turned and listened with amazement when she said, “I want each of you to try to add up all those people you see walking outside.” I looked and had counted six people when she said, “Now I want you to imagine whatever number you came up with and multiply that same number. Now take that number and multiply it by that number. Keep going!” We were all scribbling in our math notebooks, calling out the different amounts we had come up with.
Mrs. Baker stood looking out the window, allowing us to talk out loud. She seemed to be enjoying it. Then she turned around with a smile on her face and called out our names, saying, “So Gregory, how many people did you come up with?” Gregory blurted out three hundred. Mrs. Baker said, “That’s very good.” Then she turned to Roberta and asked her, “Roberta, how many people did you come up with?” Roberta, who was always laughing and playing with her hair, said, “I counted 63 people, Mrs. Baker.” By now we were all anxious to shout out the number we came up with. Mrs. Baker told us that we all had come up with great numbers of people. Then she moved to the front of the class and looked at each of us and said, “You each have to remember whenever there is a cause for justice it is up to each and every one of you take up a person or persons and bring them along, until you have hundreds, thousands. This is what it is going to take to have true freedom.” Do you all understand what I am saying?”
On cue we said, “Yes Mrs. Baker!” Then she laughed and asked us how much is ten times ten. When we said, “One Hundred!” she said, “That’s right. It is going to take one hundred percent from each and every one of you. Mathematics was rolled into History. No matter what the lesson was, there was always a quote from a writer, which Mrs. Baker insisted we write in our notebooks. She always reminded us that our grandparents, parents, sisters, brothers, uncles, and aunts, were out in the streets, at meetings, sitting at counters taking all kinds of licks so we as a people would have the same rights as everyone else. I thought about daddy and all of the meetings he planned and attended. All of our families were interconnected in the struggle. The circle was tight and respected. Mrs. Baker had instilled much in us, but the one thing that stayed with me was, “Numbers will always be numbers, whether added, subtracted or divided. But remember that times must always change. There will be many who die or disappear, paying the price, but no matter what, change will come about from the multitudes who are willing to fight.
There was no doubt that these were tenuous and violent times in Birmingham. Daddy spoke about all of the folks who were on the front lines taking the beatings and the insults. But I think we all felt the tension in some way. Churches gathered together to pray. I listened to folks all around me talk about holding on to hope and having faith. Daddy said, “We gotta hang on to hope cause we ain’t got no other choice. It’s either we keep believing in what we are doing or we might as well get the rope and lynch ourselves.”
I remember waking up one Sunday morning and looking out the window at the sky and feeling sad like. I wanted to write down what I was feeling just like Mrs. Baker had told us to do, but when I tried to write down my feelings, it was like I couldn’t squeeze it from my head to get it on paper. So I watched the clouds move in until mommy called us all downstairs for breakfast. I loved the mood of Sunday mornings with the smell of pancakes, eggs, grits, fried apples, sausage and biscuits filling the house. We would laugh and stuff ourselves until mommy said, “Okay, it’s time to get ready for church.” This one particular Sunday I was on my third pancake piling it up with cheese eggs when the doorbell rang several times. The bell kept ringing and mommy said, “Who could this be this time of morning on a Sunday!”
Before she could get to the door there were several knocks. Daddy kept eating not taking his eyes off his plate and said to mommy, “Eleanor, just see what the urgency is.” Mommy huffed off talking about people having no respect for the Lord’s Day. As soon as she opened the door I heard somebody crying. Mommy screamed and daddy jumped up from the table so fast he knocked over the chair. Just as Phyllis and Ophelia and I stated running to the front door we heard Mrs. Cates say, “They done gone and bombed the Sixteenth Street church! Oh Lord, I can’t believe it!” Daddy was holding mommy as we stood there watching until Ophelia burst out crying and daddy kneeled down and took us all in his arms. It seemed like the whole neighborhood was standing in front of our house. People were falling out crying, hugging, and cussing it seemed like in the same breath. My head spun with confusion, sadness and fear. Later we learned that four little girls had been in the church and died.
I didn’t know Addie Mae, Denise, Carole or Cynthia, but I knew that they were a lot like me. They were little black girls who liked to play, went to church and came from a family that loved them. Even though we belonged to St. James Baptist Church, our churches would often come together for Christmas programs and summer activities. Mrs. Jessie had us sit with her on the porch, saying something about it not being good for children to be around so much sadness. All sorts of thoughts were swimming around in my head. I wondered what bible passage Addie Mae, Denise, Carole and Cynthia had been reading when the bomb went off. I imagined them screaming and crying for their mommies and daddies. When I thought of their bodies burned up I started crying. Miss Jessie took me in her arms and rocked me, saying, “Honey, let it go. I’s just hope they went to glory in a hurry to the arms of Jesus. I hopes those babies didn’t feel nothing but the arms of Jesus.” I heard someone say that God needed angels so he chose them. I couldn’t imagine God choosing such a bad way for four little girls to die just because God needed some angels.
For months after the bombing and the funeral, a dark pall came over much of Birmingham--at least where Negroes lived. Folks tried to keep on going because they had no other choice. But many were mad and felt powerless to do anything. I could see that daddy was pained and tired. But he kept speaking at churches, talking about new strategies and above all being a peaceful people. Mommy told everybody that she was so mad she wanted to hurt somebody. If daddy heard her he would try to calm her with some of his legendary jokes, which would make her laugh. Still, when daddy wasn’t around I would catch mommy mumbling to herself. One day I heard her say, “I have had enough of this mess. Justice my foot.”
So it was no wonder that white folks started getting busted in the head with bottles. Some were even pulled out of their cars. When I asked mommy why people were acting like that, she said, “Hope, always remember that fighting is never good. Always remember that. But sometimes folks just can’t take no more. It’s like their anger is a rubber band that has been stretched to the limits until it just pops.” I asked mommy if Birmingham was the only place in the world where churches were being bombed and she said, “No, baby. Sadly there are folks throughout the world who have ruined churches. Unfortunately it is happening all over the South. People’s homes are being burned to the ground, too. And it’s not just colored people’s homes. White folks who try to help colored folks are losing their homes too, just not as many as our people.“ I must have started trembling or something because mommy kneeled down and took both of my hands in hers and said, “As sure as me and your father have breath, we won’t let nothing happen to you, Phyllis or Ophelia.”
As the year was coming to an end, and folks were trying to be happy about Christmas and the new year coming, I saw more of daddy’s warm smiles turn into grim stares. One day I was watching him play solitaire at the dining room table. He was hunched over, studying each card before placing it on top of a row of other cards. But the expression on his face didn’t seem to have anything to do with the card game. All of a sudden his shoulders started shaking and he let the cards fall from his hand. For the first time in my life I saw my father cry like a baby. I stood there watching him not knowing what to do, as if touching him would make him cry more. When daddy yelled, “Why! Why!” mommy came running out the kitchen. But when she said, “Lenwood, what’s wrong,” daddy waved her away, saying, “Just let me be, please Eleanor. Just let me be.” I watched mommy grab her cigarettes and walk out the back door, letting it slam behind her. Bad things seemed to be happening all over Birmingham, the South, and now right under my roof.
Here I am (on the left) with my friend in our Easter Sunday best heading for church.