The Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s: Life in Birmingham

By Rachel Glick

In 1963, Birmingham, Alabama was at the center of the revolutionary Civil Rights movement. However, Melvin Glick’s testimony shows that this “revolution” was hard to actually see in daily life. Glick, as an observer and participant, saw first hand the effects of the Civil Rights movement in Birmingham. On the surface, the political successes and famous marches and protests seemed to change little. H. W. Brands’ book, The American Dream, does a good job of summarizing the key moments of the movement, noting the hardships and struggles on the way, but he only briefly mentions frustration that many people felt during this time. Glick’s testimony adds depth to Brands’ account, offering an illustration of the ways segregation and discrimination persisted despite the advances of the Civil Rights movement.

Glick grew up in rural Pennsylvania, where he knew no black people until high school. He recalls that despite being taught by his Mennonite parents that “all people were to be treated with respect, and that there was no difference between races,” he had little understanding of race and racial slurs.[1] Pigeon, Michigan, where Glick and his wife taught at a church school, was just as detached from the world of racial tension as Parkesburg, Pennsylvania had been. They moved to Birmingham in 1963 so Glick could work in the University of Alabama hospital laboratory and attend the Medical Technology School. “For me this was like moving to a different culture in another part of the world,” Glick remembers. “I immediately noticed that all the black people lived in one area of Birmingham, mostly in the Bessemer, Alabama area…Driving through Bessemer was an ordeal because it was so difficult to breath, and from the chocking smell of sulfur from the iron smelting going on continuously.”[2] He learned not to hold the door for a black woman, as she would simply wait for him to go through first and got used to the phrase “separate but equal.” A few months after they moved, four little girls died in the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing. The victims rode segregated ambulances to the hospital.[3] The possibility of integrated neighborhoods had white families contemplating “to move over the mountain into the next ring of suburbs…”[4] This snapshot of life in the south is typical of the 1960s, but Birmingham was especially bad. The “particularly ugly form of racism” of police and officials launched the city into the spotlight, setting the stage for many of the historical moments of the Civil Rights movement to take place.[5]

Glick quickly noticed the “separate but equal” mentality that many people had. Everything was separate: separate doors, waiting rooms, water fountains, and schools. Even the courthouse was segregated. However, equal was another matter. Glick drove past a black school everyday on his way to work. The playground was gravel and children had to walk outside to get to different classes or the restroom.[6] The nearby white school was a “modern brick building” with “plenty of playground equipment plus baseball diamonds, basketball courts, and soccer fields.”[7] The famous Brown v. Board of Education case was in 1954. This was 1963. The ruling to desegregate public schools was flawed because of its demand that states do this “with all deliberate speed,” a rather ambiguous phrase.[8] Brands notes that this resulted in “foot-dragging” by the Jim Crow south.[9] As “momentous” as the decision was, it did little to help immediately.[10] Even when schools were officially desegregated, they were not necessarily integrated. Paul Mokrzycki makes the distinction between the desegregation of schools and integration: “Integration…entailed a complete and seamless incorporation of African Americans into every facet of academic life…”[11] This was still a problem in 1972, when Glick and his family moved to Indianapolis. He recalls seeing the beginning of integration of white neighborhoods and the subsequent “white flight.”[12] As blacks moved in, whites moved out.[13] Schools remained mostly desegregated, even if it was not legal desegregation.

Glick enrolled in the Medical Technology School at the University of Alabama in Birmingham in 1964. This was just a year after George Wallace famously (and literally) attempted to stand in the way of the desegregation of the university in Tuscaloosa.[14] Vivian Malone and James Hood were the first black students enrolled in any University of Alabama classes. Glick’s 1964 Medical Technology class had only ten people; one of them was Wilma Ann Barnes, the first black woman attending the university in Birmingham. “On the first day of school, all of us agreed to go as a group, with Wilma, into the white section of the University Hospital dining room,” Glick remembers.[15] Barnes was the second to last student in the line, followed by Glick. First, the other students sat down at a table together, followed by Barnes and then finally, Glick beside her. “The order was deliberate. We knew we were breaking a taboo in that room. The others could appear to have no choice in the matter, because Wilma chose to sit down at their table after they were already seated. However I could have chosen to sit elsewhere and it was obvious what was happening. I heard the hisses and mutterings as I sat down, and saw the glares of hatred from some of the people facing me.”[16] They continued this routine for several days and after awhile no one paid them any attention. There is hardly any information on Barnes available, even though she was technically the first black student to graduate from the University of Alabama. The Medical Technology program was only twelve months long, so she graduated alongside Vivian Malone in 1965. A short article was written about the event in the magazine Jet. It mentions Barnes by name but she was a “Mystery Girl” then and still is now.[17] The integration of the cafeteria was apparently a success. No one bothered them, as Glick said. But they still made sure Barnes was not alone at lunchtime, an indication that although the new status quo would not be challenged openly, it was not entirely accepted.

Brands’ summary of the Civil Rights movement and incidents like the integration of the hospital cafeteria seem to point to the success of the movement, yet Glick stated outright that he could see no improvement in the treatment of black people in Birmingham. Brands focuses on struggle to pass legislation, like the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which would end legal discrimination based on race. President Johnson’s “promise,” as Brands puts it, seemed “distant” and “irrelevant” to many black people.[18] Glick remembers witnessing a bowling alley employee refuse a black man trying to rent shoes. “The black man asked, ‘what about the court ruling?’ The bowling alley employee said, ‘we have no court ruling against us and we’re not going to rent to you. Now why don’t you just leave and not create any trouble?’”[19] This incident illustrates the frustration that Brands mentioned. Changing the laws did not erase people’s prejudices, so discrimination continued.

Glick did not attend any of the demonstrations or marches in Alabama, but he did have a sense of the danger in Birmingham. In one instance, his job at the university hospital required him to run medical tests on a black man “castrated and left lying along the road” by the KKK.[20] Bombings often occurred in places he had been recently. These were sobering reminders that the city was not entirely safe. But that violence was not restricted to the south. “I hadn’t realized that the heart of the KKK movement was in the small towns around central Indiana,” Glick remembers.[21] In a 1975 article for the Chicago Tribune, Michael Hirsley describes a Klan picnic in rural Indiana. He ends with a chilling quotation from a young boy contemplating a burning cross: “Looking at the cross, he said, ‘All we need are two niggers on the ends, you know it?’”[22] The corruption of many southern governments and the police force made the height of the civil rights movement no safer for blacks than they had been in the decades after the Civil War, when lynching was publicly accepted. “Black residents expected to be harassed by white police officers…” Brands notes.[23] Unfortunately that statement is still true in many areas of the United States today.

Glick’s recollections seem to contradict the popular interpretation that the Civil Rights movement radically, and quickly, changed in the daily lives of black Americans. “In discussions with neighbors there was just as much prejudice against blacks as there had been before, but there was a fear that changes were coming and that they would need to adjust to the changes.” Glick recalls.[24] The Civil Rights movement made huge leaps in the demolition of legal discrimination and segregation, but the system of oppression persisted for many years on its own. Laws were easier to change than the prejudices that had been instilled in the population for decades, a fact that is still relevant today.

Footnotes

[1] Email interview with Melvin Glick, March 20, 2015.

[2] Ibid.

[3] “Bomb Victims Rode Segregated Ambulances to Hospital, Morgue.” Chicago Daily Defender, September 18, 1963. [ProQuest]

[4] Email interview with Melvin Glick, March 20, 2015.

[5] H.W. Brands, American Dreams: The United States Since 1945 (New York: Penguin Books, 2010), 111.

[6] Email interview with Melvin Glick, March 20, 2015.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Brands, 86.

[9] Ibid, 86.

[10] Ibid, 86.

[11] Paul Mokrzycki, “After the Stand Comes the Fall: Racial Integration and White Student Reactions at the University of Alabama, 1963-1976,” The Alabama Review 65, no. 4 (2012): 290-313

[12] Email interview with Melvin Glick, March 20, 2015.

[13] Brands, 151.

[14] Ray Abrams, “Air of Nervous Peace Hangs Over U. of Ala. Campus.” Afro-American, June 22, 1963. [ProQuest]

[15] Email interview with Melvin Glick, March 20, 2015.

[16] Ibid.

[17] “Second Negro in Alabama Graduation A ‘Mystery’ Girl,” Jet 28, no. 2 (1965): 43 [Google Books].

[18] Brands, 148.

[19] Email interview with Melvin Glick, March 20, 2015.

[20] Ibid.

[21] Ibid.

[22] Michael Hirsley, “Klan in Indiana Dishes Out Beans, Hate at Picnic,” Chicago Tribune, July 19, 1975. [ProQuest]

[23] Brands, 148.

[24] Email interview with Melvin Glick, March 20, 2015.


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