Essays





-The Birmingham 16th Street Baptist Church Bombing—4 Little Girls

One of the singular galvanizing events of the Civil Rights Movement was the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama on September 15th, 1963. This bombing killed four Sunday School girls and injured a score of other churchgoers. These children were the latest victims of a decades long bombing campaign in the city.  

In fact bombings were so frequent in Birmingham, the city earned the sobriquet of “Bombingham.” Derisively nicknamed "Bombingham" by outsiders for the numerous attacks on civil rights activists and blacks moving into new areas of the city. Most bombings in the city over two decades were “unsolved”.
On the same day, in addition to the 4 girls, two black boys were killed in separate incidents. Virgil Ware, 14, was riding on the handlebars of a friend’s bicycle and was shot by a white passerby. Police shot Johnny Robinson, 16, after he was suspected of throwing rocks in the aftermath and the unrest following the bombing.
In a sanctuary on hallowed, sacred ground, four innocents were killed. There were no safe spaces and age and youth offered no protection. This was a new low in the sordid Southern history of race relations and its continued efforts of massive resistance and terror. This horrendous event repulsed nearly everyone. 
Artists were moved to create works that reflected the pain they felt. Four artists from the collection created works related to this event—Frank Frazier, Billy Morrow Jackson, John T. Scott, and Thomas Williams. Through their works we will explore and interrogate the context and composition that make them powerful reminders of the tragedy.
In November 1962, Birmingham voters changed the city's form of government. Rather than an at-large election of three commissioners, who had specific oversight of certain city departments, there would be a mayor-council form of government. Members of the city council were to be elected from nine single-member districts. Blacks were still largely disenfranchised. The city had changed its government in response to the extremely negative perception of the city. 
As a City Commissioner, Connor was in charge of law enforcement and was responsible for the city’s “over the top” violent responses to the non-violent protests.  For the Freedom Riders, Bull Connor arranged for segregationists to have time to attack civil rights activists when their bus reached Birmingham. This was damaging Birmingham’s reputation both nationally and internationally. 
For instance, in 1961 when the president of the city's Chamber of Commerce was visiting Japan, he saw a newspaper photo of a bus engulfed in flames, which occurred during the Freedom Rides
Precursors
       1954—Brown V. Board
       1954—Montgomery Bus Boycott
       1955—Murder of Emmett Till
       1957—Founding of SCLC
       1957—Integration of Central High Little Rock
       1960—Founding of SNCC
       1960—Greensboro Lunch Counter Sit-Ins
       1961—Freedom Rides
       1962—James Meredith at Ole Miss

 
1963
       January 14th—Inauguration of George Wallace
       April 3rd—Birmingham Campaign Begins
       April 16th—MLK—Letter From A Birmingham Jail
       May 3rd—Children’s Crusade, Birmingham
       June 11th—Wallace in School House Door
       June 12th—Assassination of Medgar Evers
       August 28th—March on Washington
       September 15th—16th Street Baptist Church Bombing
       November 22nd—Assassination of JFK 

Thomas Williams—Fallen Soldiers


In Fallen Soldiers—Tears for the Fallen, Mr. Williams memorializes the four girls killed in the Birmingham’s 16th Street Baptist Church on September 15, 1963. He emphasizes the personal toll these much publicized deaths take on their loved ones.

These were not symbols or set pieces, but friends, daughters, granddaughters, nieces, cousins, sisters, etc. Neither were they disembodied photos. The intensity of their absence and their separation from the family carries permanent scars and lifelong sadness. 

Williams’ four stylized teardrops each contains the image of one of the murdered girls—Addie Mae Collins (14), Denise McNair (11), Carole Robertson (14), and Cynthia Wesley (14). The tears were being shed by a young African American woman. 

This rendering harkens back to an image that was popular in the 1970s--“Iron Eyes Cody” who was featured in an ad urging to “Keep America Beautiful—Don’t Litter.” Cody was depicted with one tear running down his cheek.  The advertising campaign played on the presumed/perceived special relationship between Native Americans and nature. Native Americans are presented as disproportionately affected when “nature” is desecrated and disrespected.

Cody was a “faux” Native American. Cody was in fact an Italian American born in Louisiana, but he made a career of playing Native Americans in over 200 films. 

The artist remembered this public service message, but did not draw on it explicitly for inspiration. Williams’ recollection is historic because he was not born when the announcement was aired.

Culturally, the teardrop tattoo may signify several meanings. It may mean that the bearer has committed murder.  It may mean that a loved one was murdered. Lesser known meanings include the possessor of the tattoo was in prison and was raped. In that case, the tattoo indicates he is the property of the rapist. Tattoos when they are not filled-in (open) may signify a desire for revenge.

Williams’ teardrops in this case reflect the permanence of the pain engendered by the murder of the young people. Always out front and on permanent display, the world is forced to take notice of their absence and the loss of their loved ones.

Frank Frazier—Memory Altar for the Birmingham Bombing—4 Little Girls




Mr. Frazier is a consummate practitioner in many mediums—drawing, painting, collage, assemblage and ceramics. Mr. Frazier has constructed one of his unique assemblage pieces.  This piece is designated a Memory Shrine. Its history harkens back to the Greek and Latin notions of memory palaces where objects are arranged to facilitate memorization and recall. Scholars in antiquity were proud of their capacity for memorization. Their mental constructions allowed them to recall long lists of events, people, and objects. Mr. Frazier’s case gives physical form to the mental models. Mr. Frazier adds an element of sacredness because his creations have the added purpose of memorializing heroes, heroines, and events integral to the African American cultural past.

This allows/prompts the viewer to recall, reconstruct, reflect and revere the person or event. The shrine visually tells the story. In keeping with the mission of the Griots Gallery, Frank tells our communal story and facilitates the intergenerational transmission of cultural capital that is an essential element for societal progress.

Mr. Frazier presents this Memory Shrine from the perspective of an African American who lived in the North through his formative years and who had minimal direct experience with the Jim Crow segregated South. He shows a urban apartment building with TV antennas.  This is significant. Along with the newspapers, TV brought the brutal images into northern living rooms. This was a time of accelerated media evolution. To cover the events of the civil rights movement and events surrounding the Vietnam War, daily news telecasts by CBS and NBC were expanded from 15 minutes every night to 30 minutes. Still evolving, TV contrasted the dignity of the protestors sharply with the violence of the resisters.

Frank positioned the little girls’ portraits on “TV Screens” that allow us to make a personal connection with them by “inviting them into our homes.”

                Billy Morrow Jackson—The Tattooed Man

"An American, a Negro... two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder."

W. E. B. DuBois

This quotation by Dubois, which references and links to Negro duality could with only slight modification, be applied to white America.  Whites settling in the western hemisphere and especially in the United States have attempted to reconcile the ideals of equality and freedom for all citizens and the reality of raced-based chattel slavery and its bastard offspring segregation. These warring ideals existed for centuries in the “corpus” of America. Unresolved, these mutually exclusive ends had consequences for blacks and whites. Those consequences have made indelible brands on the body politic leaving it scourged and scarred. These marks persist into the 21st Century. It is from this frame we examine the “Tattooed Man” by Billy Morrow Jackson—one of the images of his acclaimed Civil Rights Series.

The image of Uncle Sam with a Top Hat partially (half) covering his face implies a degree of “shadiness” and shame. 

Uncle Sam has multiple tattoos on his arms and completely covering his torso. The tats on his torso have the faces of four little girls:  Addie Mae Collins, Carol Denise McNair, Cynthia Wesley, and Carole Robertson. 

The Uncle Sam figure suggests that the government and the country as a whole are complicit and “inextricably linked” to their murder and are indelibly marked by the “stains” (tattoos) of violence and racism.

Their deaths were the result of an organized terrorist effort.  Mr. Jackson has the name of a terrorist organization—“Nacirema”--American spelled backwards on his right forearm. This was a group that recruited and trained terrorist cells in bomb making and bombing techniques. [1]. Though this group was based in Georgia, it trained people from all over the south and had numerous sympathizers, acolytes, and fellow travelers. 

Robert Chambliss, Ku Klux Klan member, placed the bomb at the church.  Chambliss was originally found not guilty of murder and only received a fine and a six-month jail time for possessing dynamite. In 1977, he was tried again with “newly found” FBI evidence and sentenced to life in prison (where he died in 1985.)

The surrounding flowers are camellias, which are the state flowers for Alabama. Camellias were adopted in 1959, as a replacement for the Golden Rod a plant that the state decided was a weed. 

 The lower abdomen is imprinted with the Alabama State Flag, bolls of cotton, and a hourglass with apparent time running out. Sand is filling up the lower half of the hourglass and the top of the hourglass is filled with carrion birds (vultures or buzzards). Along with the federal government, the state government had a very large role and responsibility for the bombing.

The bird, surrounded by the cotton bolls, is the state bird of Alabama—the Yellowhammer. Yellowhammer is the common name for the Northern Flicker--a species of woodpecker. Alabama is also referred to as the Yellowhammer State based on yellow strips of fabric that adorned the Alabama confederates in the Civil War.

The cotton has multiple meanings. Alabama is centrally located in the South’s cotton belt.

 Cotton was indispensable for Alabama’s economic well-being, prosperity and growth and even today it remains a major cultural influence. 

The American Flag is on his right biceps and the Confederate Flag is on his left. The “Confederate Flag” was the Battle Flag of the Army of Northern Virginia. Prior to that it was noted to be the St. Andrews Flag.  More recently it has taken on a racist connotation, because it was brought out of relatively obscurity in 1948 by the “Dixiecrats” as a symbol of the Old South Confederacy and a rallying emblem for the South’s massive resistance campaign in defense of segregation.

The Uncle Sam we know today was the creation of James Montgomery Flagg.  His design was for an advertising campaign for the enlistment of soldiers in World War I. Uncle Sam is typically clad in a red and white striped top hat emblazoned with a blue circular band decorated with white stars, long white hair, and chin whiskers. When he is depicted as a standing figure he has a vest, swallowtail coat, and striped trousers.


 Wexler, Stuart, America’s Secret Jihad:  The Hidden History of Religious Terrorism in the United States, Counterpoint Press, 2015, p


Uncle Sam’s upper chest tattoo has an eagle clutching a number of arrows and a shield with the eagle’s head turned toward the arrows.  When the eagle’s head is facing the arrows this usually indicates a state of conflict or war. An implement of war--a shield, has replaced the traditional olive branches.

I Remember Birmingham--John T. Scott



John Scott was incredibly moved by the killing of the 4 little girls.  Scott created multiple art objects based on this horrific event – calligraphy, sculpture, glass blocks, poetry and a print.

The print was created at the Brandywine Workshop, under the auspices of Allen Edmunds, in Philadelphia.

Scott’s print is sub-divided into multiple individual images.  The basic structure is rectangular.  Its vertical axis is slightly longer than the horizontal axis.  This divides the picture frame into four quadrants.  On initial viewing this bisected image appears to be centered on a crucifix.

       On closer inspection, the vertical bisector is really a “lynching post”. The man on the “cross” is in a typical lynch position with his neck stretched and chin thrusting upward due to the pull of the noose.  His hands are secured and tied behind his back.  His legs are slightly spread and dangling.

The horizontal transector looks similar to the timbers found on a cross.  However, this image demands closer inspection.  The horizontal member is not timber, but is actually a bundle of dynamite.

The lynched man references and echoes the suffering and killing of Christ and the thousands of lynch victims in the post-bellum period.  Underserved, unintended suffering and the sacrifice of the innocent resonates throughout Christendom and is considered redemptive.

The picture plane references and recalls the stained glass windows of the 16th Street Baptist Church.  Their shading and the tone recreates the sheen, shimmer, and iridescence of the church windows.

At the center of the transept, there is a shape that is links two antagonistic symbols.  The positive aspect of the image shows a building façade that recalls the front of the church.  This form is ambiguous, because it is also very reminiscent of the Ku Klux Klan hoods with its prominent “eye holes” akin to a Klan mask. This is representative of the complicity of church in providing a rationale and comfort for the terrorists. Born Again Evangelicals and Southern Baptists were preeminent in their defense of slavery and in the post-slavery period defense of segregation.

In the “panes” of the glass, we can see images of the four girls killed in the bombings.  Each girl receives her own pane.  This recognition is usually reserved for Saints and other venerated individuals or significant religious symbols.

There is a small cross in each of the quadrants that recalls death and the grave.  With the Birmingham Children’s Crusade, many complained that the Civil Rights leaders were callously putting children in harm’s way.  However, the bombing shows that African American children were (are) at risk even in the most sacred and holiest of places.

The entire image is overlaid with a calligraphic poem of the despair and depression associated with this tragic event.  The theme of underserved suffering and the slaughter of innocents is underscored by the poem.

All of these images form a complex, composition that shows the confluence of law enforcement, white supremacy, Christianity, Ku Klux Klan and Civil Rights thrown together in a complex cauldron of hate which was clearly maintained and supported with terror and violence.

 

 

 

I Remember Birmingham

September 15th, 1963

16th Street Baptist Church

 

Addie Mae Collins (age 14)

Carol Denise McNair (age 11)

Carole Robertson (age 14)

Cynthia Wesley (age 14)

Night Mark (Mask) Shadows

Laugh Dance Gone

(When Young Smiles Danced)

Inside Reflections

No Mirror Smiles Remain’

How I Hold (Told) to the Dream(er?)

When Stolen By Another

How Goes The Pain

Imposed/Had By A mother

Nothing Fills the Void

Created by Hatred

Never Leaves the Stain When I Remember Birmingham

John T. Scott