16th Street Baptist Church- A Nonfiction Story


This is a short story I wrote for one of my English courses.

  16th Street Baptist Church

People are like bricks. Some bricks are old and worn. Some are new. Most have more than one color and tone displaying slight gradations of pink, peach, white, and grey–you think they’ve seen some things and have a story to tell. Some bricks are bright red and stand out from among the others and resist the effects of the natural elements. Some bricks are broken and cracked; they are so cracked that, even with repair, you see all the marks, scars, and the missing pieces from before. They are the kind of bricks that get graffiti on them and then get re-painted over and over to try to hide the marks and scars.  These are the kind of bricks I saw right on the side of the 16th Street Baptist Church on 6th Avenue in Birmingham, Alabama. I was with my husband and three children and we were visiting the memorial site of the four girls that were killed during the bombing in 1963. I looked at the pamphlet and stared at the black and white pictures of the four little girls.  Then I looked up at the side of the building. The bricks were different colors and varied in texture. Some were bumpy and some were smooth. You could see the edges where the repairs stopped and where the new bricks had been placed. The damage from the 15 dynamites will always be marked. The charcoal black lines creeped up the edges of the bricks and some discoloration was visible on the edges of the bricks.

We went inside the small museum inside of the church where many pictures of the important leaders, reverends, and people associated with the Civil Rights Movement were displayed. The elderly black woman giving the tour told us about the area, the involvement of Martin Luther King and his brother in the church, along with the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. The church was a major target because it was the first Black church in Birmingham. There in the corner of the wall were the pictures of the girls who had been killed. She told us that the glass stained window depicting Christ just above where the explosion occurred showed damages in his facial area and where the heart is. I took my time walking around and tried to paced myself so that I could really absorb the importance of what I was looking at. The cream walls covered with black and white photos of people I did not know made me feel out of place somehow. I later learned that all the man responsible were not convicted, and the few that were did not get convicted until many years later. Two boys near the church were also killed shortly after the bombing. The killing of the boys was said to not have relation to the bombing in the church. Here I was a woman of color standing there with my white husband, and yet these people seemed far away from me. I felt an emptiness inside of me and wished I knew more about them. We circled around the walls of the museum quietly and continued with the tour. I gave a gracious smile to the tour guide when we arrived at the end. The woman was probably old enough to have witnessed the event.

With a smile on my face, I said, “thank you.”

“You are welcome,” she said.

Staring at Manny she said, “boy he has a lot of energy.”

“Yes! Too much energy. I need some of that,” I said in a semi-humorous tone.

My two-year-old son, with his curly brown hair, and honey complexion, ran around the museum. I then thought about how free we were today compared to back then. David held the door open for me. I stepped out onto the sidewalk with Manny in his blue stroller, and looked up at the grey sky. The clouds were not visible and the moist air made you think that it was going to rain.

Glancing at my husband I asked, “Is it going to rain?”

“No,” He answered.

“It looks like it will,” I said.

I took my phone out in a quick smooth motion out of my black leather purse to check the weather.

I used Google Search and typed in Birmingham, Alabama Weather. The forecast for the week was displayed, and it showed that it would be cloudy with no rain.

“I guess not,” I said.

We crossed the street from the red brick Baptist church into the historical park. The park had many trees and a neat and picturesque landscape. There were a few people walking around, but the silence and the grey sky made it seem empty. In front of the entrance were four life-like statues of the girls that had been killed. The youngest one was eleven years old. The contrast of the cool grey sky and the charcoal black statue made it glow and stand out amongst everything around the park. The statue nearest to me held out her fist to the air as if motioning to the onlooker to look at the other three. One of the girls was sitting on a regular sized bench. The innocence and aloofness of her expression was apparent. We had learned that the girls were in the bathroom getting ready for choir duty when the bomb went off. I thought about what the girls might have been talking about when it happened. I pushed my son’s stroller into the small paved path that circled the perimeter of the park.

The pavement was neat and smooth, no sharp pebbles or bumps. There were red symmetrical squares line around the cemented pathway that went around the park. It gave the old historical park a contemporary feel. There was a bus stop to the left of me near the path where four black men waited for the bus. Further down path there was a display of K9 dogs which were carved and placed in a manner, jumping mid-air, to make you feel what it was like to be a protester during that time. You walked through it and they snarled at you.

“This looks so realistic,” I said to my husband.

My seven-year-old daughter, touched one of the dog’s noses and commented on how big and scary it was. I tried to explain to her what it was, and the importance of the area. My husband and I told her how years ago people who had a dark skin did not have the same rights as people who were white. My eldest son who is eleven has Autism and so was unable to grasp what was going on.  A few paces down were a gathering of what appeared to be a group of homeless people, and some type of community organization handing out food.

“I want to turn around. I don’t want to walk down there” I said with a quiet and matter-of-fact tone.

“Obviously,” he said with some hint of frustration.

We turned around half way through our walk through the park and walked out.

I felt a sense of guilt for feeling that way. I wanted to justify that I was right to feel uncomfortable. As we headed towards our grey Honda CRV parked a half a mile away, I heard a woman behind us.

“Excuse me, excuse me!” she called out.

I turned around and noticed her tattered oversized shirt, missing teeth, and straggly hair.

“I ain’t got no weapons or anything like that, I’m three months pregnant and I just need $8.50 to get a hotel Please,” she said.

Her eyes bulged as she spoked and she tried hard, like anyone in her situation would do, to appear sincere and honest.

“I don’t have any cash, sorry—We don’t carry cash” I responded.

She gave a sigh and turned around with a disappointed look and walked back toward the park.

“She looks too old to be pregnant,” I said.

My husband replied, “She’s probably in her 30’s.”

I then remembered the documentary I watched a few years ago about the aging effects of drugs on the human body. They showed people in their 20’s who were once healthy and attractive but were no longer so.

I watched her walk away. It was almost as if she had vanished into thin are after a certain point. Maybe it was like that with certain people.

I knew from my upbringing in an urban area in the South Bronx how people like that would watch you from far away. They sniff you like one of those K9 dogs and prepare to pounce on you. You want to help, but are you really helping when you give them money. In my neighborhood, those people would not bother asking other people from the same neighborhood. You always knew who looked nice and who might have cash. You knew who was from the same neighborhood and who’s kid you were. I was Tato’s kid. That is what they called my Father. He was a Black Puerto Rican man who was popular in the neighborhood. He was friendly. He would always go to the corner bodega to get me candy when I wanted some. Everyone knew who Tato was. I looked at my husband who was still looking at the church across the street.

“You know she would have smoked it up,” he said.

“I know,” I replied.

I took my son out of his stroller and put him in his car seat and handed him his red sippy cup. My other two children got into the car.  None of them really understood the significance of where we were. They waited for us to get into the car patiently. We tried to explain to her the meaning of why this area is important. It is hard for them to understand. We were going to the Birmingham zoo right after, and my seven-year-old daughter was excited to see all of the animals there. The grey sky and the slight breeze made it a perfect day to walk for a long distance. The summer heat in the South is brutal—too brutal for anyone. My husband pulled out a cigarette from his pocket, took a sip of his energy drink, and began to talk about some of the history of the area with me. As we spoke about the civil rights movement I could not stop thinking about the woman who asked us for money. I wondered how long she had been watching us and what she was thinking. I thought about my own father, who had died from drug abuse and what he might have looked like before they found his body in a basement. I remember reading the report on the death certificate ten years later. I thought about this area—Birmingham, Alabama, where Martin Luther King walked and preached. I thought about the woman who caused Emmet Till’s death. Why did she decide to reveal the truth now? People knew she lied, and yet hearing it somehow made it different. Would it had been better if she did not?  I then looked around the cemented streets, the green grass, the red brick church, the park, the people waiting for the bus and thought how about how there were too many tattered clothes, and not enough menders around. Or perhaps they’ve giving up on trying to mend them. What is the point in hiding behind clothes that are clean and mended when you’re dirty?