The Speech That Shocked Birmingham the Day After the Church Bombing

Appalled by the murder of four little girls, a white Alabaman spoke out against racism—and was forever shunned for it.
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"A bomb went off and an all-white police force moved into action," proclaimed Charles Morgan Jr. at the Birmingham Young Men's Business Club. (Associated Press)

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 and Little 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.

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Andrew Cohen is a contributing editor at The Atlantic. He is a legal analyst for 60 Minutes and CBS Radio News, and a fellow at the Brennan Center for Justice.

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