Appalled by the murder of four little girls, a white Alabaman spoke out against racism—and was forever shunned for it.
By Andrew Cohen, The Atlantic
In the next few days, you are likely to be inundated with 50th anniversary reminiscences of the Birmingham church bombing of September 15, 1963, a blast that killed four young black children and intensified the struggle for civil rights in the South. This is as it should be. The bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church was the most terrible act of one of the most terribly divisive periods in American history, and it’s not too much of a leap to suggest that all that came after it—including the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965—would not have come as quickly as it did without the martyrdom of those little girls.
What you likely will not hear about in the next few days is what happened the day after the church bombing. On Monday, September 16, 1963, a young Alabama lawyer named Charles Morgan Jr., a white man with a young family, a Southerner by heart and heritage, stood up at a lunch meeting of the Birmingham Young Men’s Business Club, at the heart of the city’s white Establishment, and delivered a speech about race and prejudice that bent the arc of the moral universe just a little bit more toward justice. It was a speech that changed Morgan’s life—and 50 years later its power and eloquence are worth revisiting. Just hours after the church bombing, Morgan spoke these words:
Four little girls were killed in Birmingham yesterday. A mad, remorseful worried community asks, “Who did it? Who threw that bomb? Was it a Negro or a white?” The answer should be, “We all did it.” Every last one of us is condemned for that crime and the bombing before it and a decade ago. We all did it.
He had written the speech that morning, he would recount years later after he and his family were forced to flee Birmingham because of the vicious reaction his words had generated from his fellow Alabamans. He had jotted down his remarks, he said, “from anger and despair, from frustration and empathy. And from years of hopes, hopes that were shattered and crumbled with the steps of that Negro Baptist Church.” He had had enough of the silent acquiescence of good people who saw wrong but didn’t try to right it.
A short time later, white policemen kill a Negro and wound another. A few hours later, two young men on a motorbike shoot and kill a Negro child. Fires break out, and, in Montgomery, white youths assault Negroes. And all across Alabama, an angry, guilty people cry out their mocking shouts of indignity and say they wonder, “Why?” “Who?” Everyone then “deplores” the “dastardly” act. But you know the “who” of “Who did it” is really rather simple.
There was little in Morgan’s early life to suggest that he would have the courage to speak out in this fashion—but you also can see signs of the civil rights lawyer to come. He was born in Kentucky, the son of parents who moved their family to Birmingham in 1945 and were always courteous to the “black help.” Like so many other local sons and daughters of the time, Morgan went to University of Alabama. By the time he got there he was interested in law and politics. He would spend his life enmeshed in both.
The “who” is every little individual who talks about the “niggers” and spreads the seeds of his hate to his neighbor and his son. The jokester, the crude oaf whose racial jokes rock the party with laughter. The “who” is every governor who ever shouted for lawlessness and became a law violator. It is every senator and every representative who in the halls of Congress stands and with mock humility tells the world that things back home aren’t really like they are. It is courts that move ever so slowly, and newspapers that timorously defend the law.
He was always a Democrat, which in Alabama in 1948 meant that he was present at the creation of the chasm on race that defines American politics to this very day. Tellingly, he was drawn first to James E. Folsom—”Big Jim”—who served two non-consecutive terms as governor from 1947 to 1959. Folsom was a populist, which wasn’t uncommon, but was also an early and ardent integrationist. “As long as the Negroes are held down by deprivation and lack of opportunity the other poor people will be held down alongside them,” Folsom had said, in 1949, the year after Alabama went Dixiecrat.
It is all the Christians and all their ministers who spoke too late in anguished cries against violence. It is the coward in each of us who clucks admonitions. We have 10 years of lawless preachments, 10 years of criticism of law, of courts, of our fellow man, a decade of telling school children the opposite of what the civics books say. We are a mass of intolerance and bigotry and stand indicted before our young. We are cursed by the failure of each of us to accept responsibility, by our defense of an already dead institution.
I suppose it was inevitable that a smart young man interested in law and politics would pass the decade of the 1950s in Alabama at the center of a constant storm of racial tension. And 1954 clearly was the dividing line. Before it there were the deplorable conditions that generated the United States Supreme Court’s decision in Brown v. Board of Education. After it there was the virulent opposition that the ruling generated in the South. What did Morgan say he learned during this tumultuous time? That voices of moderation must have the courage to speak up—or accept the pain of being left out.
Yesterday while Birmingham, which prides itself on the number of its churches, was attending worship services, a bomb went off and an all-white police force moved into action, a police force which has been praised by city officials and others at least once a day for a month or so. A police force which has solved no bombings. A police force which many Negroes feel is perpetrating the very evils we decry. And why would Negroes think this?
He got married. He became a lawyer. He was active in state and local politics. By 1958 he had his own firm. And through this era, of Citizens Councils andLittle Rock, he struggled to reconcile his love of the South with his aversion to its racism, his loyalty to Birmingham with his frustration at its opposition to integration. What he learned during this time in both law and politics, he would later say, was that the topic of race was a trap and that “every white man in Alabama was caught up in it.”
There are no Negro policemen; there are no Negro sheriff’s deputies. Few Negroes have served on juries; few have been allowed to vote; few have been allowed to accept responsibility, or granted even a simple part to play in the administration of justice. Do not misunderstand me. It it not that I think that white policemen had anything whatsoever to do with the killing of these children or previous bombings. It’s just that Negroes who see an all-white police force must think in terms of its failure to prevent or solve the bombing and think perhaps Negroes would have worked a little harder. They throw rocks and bottles and bullets. And we whites don’t seem to know why the Negroes are lawless. So we lecture them.
In 1960, The New York Times‘ correspondent Harrison Salisbury wrote a flammable piece on Birmingham titled “Fear and Hatred Grip Birmingham. In a tone Morgan would echo three years later, Salisbury wrote of the city: “Every channel of communication, every medium of mutual interest, every reasoned approach, every inch of middle ground has been fragmented by the emotional dynamite of racism, enforced by the whip, the razor, the gun, the bomb, the torch, the club, the knife, the mob, the police and many branches of the state’s apparatus.” Furious, Alabama officials quickly sued the Times for libel.
Birmingham is the only city in America where the police chief and the sheriff in the school crisis had to call our local ministers together to tell them to do their duty. The ministers of Birmingham who have done so little for Christianity call for prayer at high noon in a city of lawlessness, and in the same breath, speak of our city’s “image.” Did those ministers visit the families of the Negroes in their hour of travail? Did many of them go to the homes of their brothers and express their regrets in person or pray with the crying relatives? Do they admit Negroes into their ranks at the church?
The libel lawsuit (remember, this was before the Supreme Court issued New York Times v. Sullivan, a decision that broadened first amendment protections for journalists) immediately impacted Morgan. He was asked to represent the Rev. Robert L. Hughes, a white Methodist minister who was a director of the Alabama Council on Human Relations, a group designed to act as a liaison between the white and black communities in Birmingham. Hughes had been served a subpoena to produce the records of all those who supported the council. And he had decided to fight the request.
Who is guilty? A moderate mayor elected to change things in Birmingham and who moves so slowly and looks elsewhere for leadership? A business community which shrugs its shoulders and looks to the police or perhaps somewhere else for leadership? A newspaper which has tried so hard of late, yet finds it necessary to lecture Negroes every time a Negro home is bombed? A governor who offers a reward but mentions not his own failure to preserve either segregation or law and order? And what of those lawyers and politicians who counsel people as to what the law is not, when they know full well what the law is?
Representing Rev. Hughes immediately made Morgan the target of the Klan. Its members accosted him in a courthouse at a hearing. There were anonymous nighttime phone calls. “How come you’d represent that nigger-lover Hughes?” he would be asked. “You better watch out, tough guy. Some night we’ll get you alone.” The experience made Morgan realize that he and Hughes, that all moderates seeking to foster equal rights in the South at that time, were “in the same boat.” Whether he had wanted to or not, he had chosen a side.
Those four little Negro girls were human beings. They had lived their fourteen years in a leaderless city: a city where no one accepts responsibility, where everybody wants to blame somebody else. A city with a reward fund which grew like Topsy as a sort of sacrificial offering, a balm for the conscience of the “good people,” whose ready answer is for those “right wing extremists” to shut up. People who absolve themselves of guilt. The liberal lawyer who told me this morning, “Me? I’m not guilty!” he then proceeding to discuss the guilt of the other lawyers, the one who told the people that the Supreme Court did not properly interpret the law. And that’s the way it is with the Southern liberals. They condemn those with whom they disagree for speaking while they sit in fearful silence.
He became radicalized—but only to a point and always within the structure of the law. He represented a black murder defendant named Boaz Sanders, a case that further opened his eyes to the state’s unequal justice under law. Then he sued the University of Alabama, his beloved alma mater, after it refused to admit two black men around the same time it was stalling the admission of Hood and Malone. These were formal acts of subversion against a culture he could neither abide nor quit. It was tough love. It was the tiny ripple of hope that Robert Kennedy, years later, would talk about in South Africa.
Birmingham is a city in which the major industry, operated from Pittsburgh, never tried to solve the problem. It is a city where four little Negro girls can be born into a second-class school system, live a segregated life, ghettoed into their own little neighborhoods, restricted to Negro churches, destined to ride in Negro ambulances, to Negro wards of hospitals or to a Negro cemetery. Local papers, on their front and editorial pages, call for order and then exclude their names from obituary columns.
The Alabama of the early 1960s was the Alabama of George Wallace and the Freedom Riders. It was the Alabama of Vivian Malone and James Hood and Eugene “Bull” Connor. It was the Alabama from which came many blacks and whites who believed in integration and in civil rights and who participated in the March on Washington on August 28, 1963. And then, just 18 days later, it was the Alabama that detonated a bomb inside a church on a Sunday. “My God,” a woman on the scene screamed, “you’re not even safe in a church.”
And who is really guilty? Each of us. Each citizen who has not consciously attempted to bring about peaceful compliance with the decisions of the Supreme Court of the United States, every citizen who has ever said “they ought to kill that nigger,” every citizen who votes for the candidate with the bloody flag, every citizen and every school board member and schoolteacher and principal and businessman and judge and lawyer who has corrupted the minds of our youth; every person in this community who has in any way contributed during the past several years to the popularity of hatred, is at least as guilty, or more so, than the demented fool who threw that bomb.
What’s it like living in Birmingham? No one ever really has known and no one will until this city becomes part of the United States. Birmingham is not a dying city; it is dead.
And with those words—”It is dead”—Morgan sat down. In his powerful book, “A Time to Speak,” from which the speech has been transcribed, Morgan wrote: “There was applause, and then one member rose. He suggested that we admit a Negro into the club. There was silence. The motion died. Soon the Young Men’s Business Club of Birmingham, Alabama, adjourned its meeting of September 16, 1963. It was one o’clock. Downstairs, the troopers still laughed and talked, and blocks away the carillon again played ‘Dixie.'”
Following the speech, the threats began almost immediately. The very next morning, at 5 a.m., Morgan received a call. “Is the mortician there yet?” a voice asked. “I don’t know any morticians,” Morgan responded. “Well, you will,” the voice answered, “when the bodies are all over your front yard.” Later, Morgan recounted, a client of his drove an hour to tell him to flee Birmingham. “They’ll shoot you down like a dog,” the client told Morgan. Little wonder that Morgan quickly closed down his law practice and moved himself and his family to safety.
“Chuck told me that he received a stream of threats both by telephone and letter for weeks after his speech,” recalls Steve Suitts, the renowned author, scholar, and civil libertarian who was one of Morgan’s longtime friends. “Once we discussed the anonymous threats that Alabama-born Justice Hugo Black received from white Southerners after the Brown decision, and a note I had found in Black’s papers saying ‘Nigger-lovers don’t live long in Alabama.’ Chuck smiled and said he got the very same language in a note after his speech in 1963.
“But, the threats that worried Chuck the most were those made against his wife, Camille, and his little boy, Charles,” Suitts told me this week via email. “He once told me that he had received a note that he did not share with Camille or anyone else. It listed all the places that Camille and Charles had been on a recent Saturday and said something like, ‘Wife and kid of a troublemaker ain’t always getting home. Next time?’ That one worried him the most, because it meant someone had actually followed his family all day.”
What did he do when he left Alabama? A great deal. He led an extraordinarily vital life on behalf of the poor and the dispossessed and the accused. Here’s how the Times, in its 2009 obituary of him, described the impact of Morgan’s work upon the lay of the law:
Among his many cases as a civil rights lawyer, Mr. Morgan sued to desegregate his alma mater, the University of Alabama; forced a new election in Greene County, Ala., that led to the election of six black candidates for local offices in 1969; and successfully challenged racially segregated juries and prisons. After the civil rights movement began to subside, Mr. Morgan, as a leader of the American Civil Liberties Union, fought three celebrated court cases involving protests against the Vietnam War.
He represented Muhammad Ali in his successful court fight to avoid being drafted. He represented the civil rights activist Julian Bond in the early stages of an ultimately successful lawsuit after Mr. Bond had been denied a seat in the Georgia legislature because of his antiwar views. And he defended an officer when he was court-martialed for refusing to help instruct Green Berets headed for Vietnam.
But it is Suitts, who in many ways carries on the tradition of the Southern moderate, who deserves the last word as we approach the golden anniversary of this remarkable act of personal courage. Of Morgan, Suitts told me:
In many ways, Chuck took one of the key points in Dr. King’s “Letter from the Birmingham Jail,” written five months earlier, and extended it into the horrendous facts of the bombing. (Dr. King wrote: “I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to ‘order’ than to justice… who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait.”)
Chuck’s speech carried this theme one step further by suggesting the white moderate was responsible for the worst of “disorder” as well as gross injustice … by asking” Who is guilty?” of the bombing of innocent little girls and answering “Each of us!” – not the Klan, not the extremist whites but every white person in Birmingham…
There is no monument or commemoration of Chuck’s “Time to Speak” in Birmingham. Last time I was in the Birmingham Civil Rights Museum, I did not see any reference to Chuck’s speech. Birmingham’s Young Men’s Business Club still remembers Chuck’s speech occasionally, but it is not remembered all that often there or elsewhere in Birmingham.
There is probably more than one reason for this fact. The bombing – not Chuck’s speech – was the event that rocked Birmingham and the nation. It is also very hard for anyone today, in Birmingham and elsewhere, to genuinely understand how often and how many good white people kept silent in the face of rank injustice and racial violence in the South during the era of Jim Crow.
In fact, in one of the last conversation Chuck and I had, we laughed about how difficult it is nowadays to find a Southern white family that does not claim having done at least one heroic act on their part to end racial injustice during the civil rights movement.