NATIONWIDE – “1963: How the Birmingham Civil Rights Movement Changed America and the World,” features a chronological account of some of the major events from that pivotal year in Birmingham’s history. — Photo/The Birmingham News
As a teenager growing up in Philadelphia, Barnett Wright learned about the bombing of Birmingham’s Sixteenth Street Baptist Church and other seminal events in the Civil Rights Movement from reading history books and watching TV documentaries. At the time, Wright thought he had found out all he needed to know about Birmingham.
Wright’s pre-conceived notions of the region were challenged when he went to work for The Birmingham News — moving there in 2000 after serving as The Philadelphia Tribune’s Managing Editor — and came to discover the people behind the history. Now, Wright has written his own Birmingham history book, “1963: How the Birmingham Civil Rights Movement Changed America and the World” ($24.99). Published by The Birmingham News and the Alabama Media Group, the book features a chronological account of some of the major events from that pivotal year in Birmingham’s history.
For first-person accounts, Wright’s book includes interviews with some of the foot soldiers of the movement that he gleaned from a Birmingham Civil Rights Institute oral history project. Next year will mark 50 years since the deaths of four Black girls in the Birmingham church bombing. Yet, another child was murdered that day. Virgil Ware, a 13-year-old boy, was killed outside Birmingham on Sept. 15, 1963, while riding on the handlebars of his 16-year-old brother’s bicycle, near his family‘s home. Two white youths were charged with first-degree murder, but an all-white jury convicted them on the lesser charge of second-degree manslaughter.
“When you looked at the horror and the despicable acts of Sept.15, everybody focused on the girls because of the bombing,” said Wright. “But at the same time, in another part of the city, Virgil Ware — 14 years old, the same age as most of the girls — was murdered while riding his bicycle by two whites. I’ve been down here for 12 years, and every time they talk about the four little girls, they also say, ‘Don’t forget Virgil Ware.’ So I had to include that in the book. He was a Black child, riding his bicycle, came upon two whites at the time, on a small road outside of Birmingham, and was shot and killed. A lot of people have almost forgot about that, and I think what is even more tragic is that the boys who shot him did not serve any significant time. A judge found that the white kids who shot Virgil Ware had already suffered enough. So, you had the killers of the Black boy in hand, but yet you let them go eventually … that’s the Birmingham you found 50 years ago.”
Wright researched and wrote the book while continuing to cover his Jefferson County government beat for The News. In fact, Wright was monitoring breaking news while making time for an interview with his old paper. “1963” covers not only the church bombing, but also Albert Boutwell’s defeat of Eugene “Bull” Connor in the city’s first mayor-council election; Martin Luther King Jr.’s incarceration and his “Letter from Birmingham Jail;” the sit-ins that led to the desegregation of downtown lunch counters; and the integration of Ramsay and West End high schools and Graymont Elementary School.
In the book’s epilogue, Wright also talks about what Birmingham looks like in the nearly half-century since 1963. He cites the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute as an example of how the city has embraced its past instead of trying to bury it.
“Birmingham has changed a lot, but you still have those vestiges or traces of people who have the 1961 mindset,” said the reporter. “One of the reactions I got was, ‘Just what we need: another civil rights book.’ But if you look at it do you know how many Abraham Lincoln books are out? And yet, when you look at the Civil Rights Movement, some people are uncomfortable, but every time you read another book on the era you learn something.”
“1963: How the Birmingham Civil Rights Movement Changed America and The World” is available at Books-A-Million stores.
By Bobbi Booker
Special to the NNPA from The Philadelphia Tribune