Diane McWhorter Remarks

Birmingham, AL
April 4, 2013

Thank you so much for giving me this honor.  There are so many people in this room that I either grew up with, or interviewed, or offended, or something.  But I wanted to just acknowledge Harris Wofford, who was a character in the book.  He’s here with us today, and I just wanted to say: “You’re my hero, and thank you very much.”

It’s poetic in so many ways that America’s Promise is kicking off this event in Birmingham, beginning with our own Alma Johnson Powell and our own school children who brought about a historical turning point that allowed us all (black and white together) to be sitting at the same tables with each other today.

Fifty years ago yesterday was the official beginning of the epoch that went down in history as the Year of Birmingham.  Fred Shuttlesworth and Dr. Martin Luther King launched their mass protests against segregation, which weren’t so “mass” in the beginning. In fact, they were faltering. Out of desperation, the organizers called out  the city school children to march.  Disciplined (for the most part), these high-stepping youth battalions, some wearing all white, marched out from the 16th Street Baptist Church to face down Commissioner Bull Connor’s fire hoses and police dogs.  This biblical spectacle of good versus evilrallied national opinion against segregation and gave President Kennedy the moral authority he needed to introduce federal legislation to outlaw the brutal state-sponsored racism that had been in effect for 80 years. It was eventually passed after his death, and after the death of four Sunday school girls at the 16th Street Baptist Church, as the Civil Rights Act of 1964

That’s the grand historical narrative we all know. But there is a more complex and intimate Birmingham story behind the story.  This one (and I have to tell you that this is not a “shaggy dog” story) involves R.C. Johnson who was the principal of Parker High School, which was once pictured on post cards under the caption: “Largest in the world for colored pupils.” That in itself implies its own critique.  Mr. Johnson, like most educators, was really torn about those children that weresent out into the streets to demonstrate.  He, after all, answered to an all-white school board, which had threatened to expel the truant students if  they left class.  And on “D-Day,” which is the day they went out to the street, Mr. Johnson tried to close the gates to Parker High School, and the children just scampered over the fence.  As the student demonstrations gained momentum, a chant could be heard in the halls of Parker saying “Gotta go, Mr. Johnson, Gotta go!” Mr. Johnson felt so vulnerable, caught between a rock and a hard place.  He would come home at night and would guard the front door of his house with a shot gun.  What he was guarding principally was his new grand baby, and his daughter, Alma Johnson Powell, who had come back home to Birmingham because her husband, Colin Powell, was just beginning his brilliant career in the military and was stationed in Vietnam.

I think I have to pause for just one second to really appreciate all of the history that’s contained in that one sentence, starting with the two major issues of American history in the mid-20th century – Civil Rights and Vietnam.

History can look deceptively tidy from the far side, but the reason Mr. Johnson was torn was that he understood the messy consequences of his students’ brave stand—though, let’s be honest, some were simply delighted with the opportunity to skip school.  And he recognized that the best hope (give or take a few sports stars or entertainers) for an African American child to transcend  second class citizenship was getting an education. And whatever the demands of history,  thousands of these school children, some of who were within a month of their graduation, were going to have their life paths drastically derailed if they were to be expelled, which they were. 

The school board—appointed by Bull Connor-- did, in fact, expel the students.  If it hadn’t been for the brave appellate  judge in Atlanta, Elbert Tuttle, who reversed the decision, then it’s really likely that the landmark civil rights legislationcredited to Birmingham would have been filed under
“maybe next year.” The great victory in Birmingham would have been badly compromised. This is the best introduction I can give you to explain why Alma Johnson Powell is a woman of destiny, really born to lead the campaign to stop the high school dropout crisis.  You can read about her many other accomplishments on Google--she is an educator, board member, is trained as an audiologist, and has been the Washingtonian Magazine’s Woman of the Year in 1999.  And I don’t want to leave out her mother who was also an activist.  There was a famous Klan attack on a Girl Scout camp in Bessemer in 1948.  They were having a bi-racial training session, and Mrs. Powell’s mother was one of the black Girl Scout leaders.

Sometimes, the educational arc of history seems to be bending towards injustice, inequality and more segregation, and to me, the challenge of being human is figuring out how we as individuals can merge with history on the right side.  Mrs. Powell is just an exemplar of how that is done. All of you in this room, because you’re here, I think are trying to figure out a way to find our own meaning in the history of our city. It’s a bigger honor than I can express to have my personal history finally merge with yours, and I give you Alma Johnson Powell.