On September 15, 1963 I was a 1o year-old sixth grader, preoccupied with my birthday, a little more than a month away. I attended Sacred Heart School in Fremont, Ohio. At Sacred Heart, we all went to daily Mass. I was an “altar boy.” The Mass was still in Latin and I loved it.
My uncle Jim, pastor of St. Alice Parish at Plainville, TX, hadn’t given up on luring me into the priesthood. The prevailing practice was to recruit boys early, so that by the time we finished elementary school, (before the temptations of the lay world seriously seduced us), we could jump right into a “pre-seminary” prep school. It was working on me until Suzie Daubenmire, a pretty, pig-tailed girl in my class made it clear to me that prep school and the priesthood were not to be part of my future. Little did I realize that national events would overshadow my preoccupation with my imminent birthday, religious education and temporarily, even Suzy Daubenmire.
I knew about racism but hadn’t really experienced it, except on TV. It always seemed to happen somewhere else. I was fortunate to have parents who taught us not to judge merit based on race…that it’s what’s inside each person that matters. Some years earlier, my dad supervised migrant workers. They were welcome in our home and some even cooked and sent us native Mexican fare. In Kindergarten, I had a black “girlfriend.” We cavorted at recess, held hands constantly and I don’t recall anyone ever questioning it. Certainly not our parents.
In 1963, one of my best friends was Ricky W., one of few blacks in my school (black Catholics in small, Midwestern towns were a bit of a rarity.) Ricky was quite popular. He was athletic, good-looking, smart and possessed what I later learned was Joie de vivre. Energy and fun radiated from Ricky. His family lived in town, which I thought cool. We lived in the country.
Two events in close proximity to my eleventh birthday had a a profound effect on me and the nation. The first occurred on September 15th and the other, November 22nd. Both took place in the south–a place I had never visited, a place that to me, represented only lynchings, fires, broken glass, shootings, marches, protests, assaults, language I never used, government officials spewing venom at black America, black and white images of cops using attack dogs and clubs on families and firemen (among my heroes) with high-pressure hoses knocking grown men and women off their feet. This was racism and it seemed far removed.
The Birmingham Church Bombing Sept. 15th made it more personal. Those killed were kids just like me. They were in church, as I frequently was at the time. Denise McNair was 11. She reminded me of my former Kindergarten playmate. They were all nearly my age, Ricky’s age. I didn’t understand how it could happen or why the God I loved would allow it.
The nation changed that day. So did Ricky. We used to talk about everything but had trouble discussing the bombing. Real or imagined, I sensed tension that wasn’t there before.. White terror and black horror had at long last provoked repressed or hidden white sympathy and outrage. But it also strained relationships and raised questions where none had been before. We celebrated my birthday but I honestly remember nothing of it.
On November 22, America was rocked again, this time in Texas–which I had always associated with cowboys, cattle and Uncle Jim. I had become a “Kennedy watcher.” It was the first presidential election I cared about. Ricky and I were in class when, over the intercom, news of President Kennedy‘s shooting was somewhat haltingly announced, followed by a cancellation of classes the rest of the day. As we waited for school buses, words fall short of describing our mood. Some were silent, others cried. Nuns tried to explain how something like this could happen. Never have I seen a busload of elementary students more somber, more withdrawn.
Above all, these memories loom large over others I have of 1963, I ended up moving away from Fremont the following year. Ricky and I lost touch. I often wonder what became of him. I’ve spent most of my life trying to understand how either of these historic events came to pass, how they changed my life and forever erased any recollection of my 11th Birthday.
John Coltrane wrote “Alabama” in reaction to the Birmingham Church Bombing. To learn more about “Trane” and this song, double click on the arrow to open YouTube and then click on “more info.”