It was an amazing decision.
In 1961, Baptist minister Norman J. “Jim” Jimerson left his New England roots far behind and moved to Birmingham to take a job as a full-time civil rights worker. He brought with him his wife and four children.
Nearly everyone he talked to about the move had opposed it – his wife, her parents, his parents, his oldest son, colleagues at his old job, even Thurgood Marshall.
As his son tells the story, the Rev. Jimerson encountered the pathbreaking NAACP attorney and future Supreme Court Justice at a workshop. He asked him,“What would you do?”
“I’d get the hell out,” Marshall replied.
Jimerson’s daughter Ann was her father’s family supporter. Ann recalls reading mimeographed handouts her father brought home; they reported terrible violence against black people in the South. As the family talked about moving to Alabama, she said, “But Daddy, if things are really that bad, we have to go.” Besides, his son Randall “Rand” Jimerson recalls, his father felt that God had called him to Birmingham, and that’s a hard argument to counter.
The Jimersons lived in Birmingham from 1961 to 1964. Jim Jimerson was director of the Alabama Council on Human Relations. His employer was a small band of Alabamians – about 500 people, black and white – who risked early resistance to segregation and racism. His mission was shuttle diplomacy between black and white leaders during a violent and decisive time.
Jim Jimerson helped make history and was a witness to more. But it may have been his young family who saw life in 1960s Birmingham from the most unusual vantage points.
When the Jimersons arrived, Rand was 12; Ann, ten; Paul, seven; and Susan, six. Their youngest brother, Mark, was born in Birmingham. On the advice of their Alabama sponsors – people who included future Birmingham mayor David Vann and civil rights attorney Charles Morgan Jr. – the family moved to the quiet of Saulter Road in Homewood. They tried to avoid controversy and lessen the danger. But while the children attended segregated white Homewood schools, they also were absorbing their father and mother’s Civil Rights stories and progressive values at the dinner table, and meeting journalists and activists who sometimes visited. When the inevitable pushback came from neighbors, teachers, classmates and threatening callers, the children were in the line of fire too.
“Birmingham changed our lives,” Ann Jimerson says. There is no question for the Jimersons that there is an ongoing story that still must be told. And that is why events this year in Bellingham, Washington, Washington D.C. and Yarmouth, Massachusetts all recall the events in Birmingham in 1963.
In Bellingham, Rand Jimerson, an historian and archivist at Western Washington University, completed a project begun two decades earlier with the encouragement of Ann: a memoir of his father’s work and his family’s life in Birmingham. The result is Shattered Glass in Birmingham: One Family’s Fight for Civil Rights, 1961-1964, scheduled for publication in 2014 by Louisiana State University Press. The shattered glass of the title refers to remnants of the stained glass window broken in the bomb explosion at Sixteenth Street Baptist Church, gathered from the street by Jim Jimerson that terrible day and preserved by his family through the years since.
In Washington, Ann Jimerson – a former Peace Corps volunteer who now works with a Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation project to improve infant nutrition in Bangladesh, Ethiopia and Vietnam – was passionate about bringing together people who were children in Birmingham in 1963. The result is a website, www.kidsinbirmingham1963.org, home to recollections from people now scattered across the country.
In Yarmouth, Susan Jimerson, a social worker, lent a piece of the glass and twisted lead for an exhibit at Zion Union Heritage Museum. Growing up, she had seen the remnant of destruction at home, a reminder, her mother often said, of “what a twisted mind can do.” This summer, visitors to Cape Cod from across the country encountered the very concrete evidence of a tragedy, encounters that usually provoked a solemn quiet, Susan Jimerson says. This month, the Jimerson family will donate the stained glass to the National Museum of African American History and Culture scheduled to open in Washington D.C. in 2015. The family earlier gave a piece of the broken glass to the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute.
For the Jimerson children, this year brought their memories of Birmingham to the forefront of their minds and activities. And for them, the recollections of Birmingham of the 1960s are more about school and church and home than about the public stage of politics and protest.
An early dose of reality came when the Jimerson family tried to join local white churches. In succession, leaders of two Baptist churches and a Presbyterian congregation unequivocally turned them away because Jim Jimerson’s work would cause trouble. For a devout family, being rejected by churches was a big blow. “It was really hard, not to have a church home,” Ann says.
It is one of the grace notes of the Jimersons’ time in Birmingham that Mrs. Jimerson and the children eventually attended Shades Valley Presbyterian Church. When the family first went there, men from the church quizzed them about being communists, Rand Jimerson writes in Shattered Glass. Mrs. Jimerson – Melva Brooks Jimerson, a rare woman architect in the 1960s — sobbed when she realized the church would not allow her to teach Sunday School, he writes. But eventually a church member who was Mrs. Jimerson’s friend coaxed her back to the church, firmly assuring her the family would not be shunned again. Jim Jimerson, unable to live with either silence or emerging opposition to the Civil Rights Movement there, moved to Pilgrim Congregational Church, led by a minister pushing its members to accept integration.
At one of the stops on the church odyssey, a member told Jim Jimerson he would not oppose his membership, but that he would abstain on a vote. It became a defining moment. Rand Jimerson writes in Shattered Glass: “This statement reflected the essential moral problem facing Birmingham, Chuck Morgan told Dad: ‘Not the ‘extremists’ who attack you, but the ‘moderates’ who abstain.’”
Another time of deep disappointment came the day of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church bombing. As described in Shattered Glass, Jim Jimerson called a succession of white ministers he knew to go with him to express condolences to the families of the children killed. None would accompany him.
The Jimerson children were cautioned by their parents to be careful about what they said at school. They tried to comply. Ann recalls that teachers had no such reticence about expressing their views in support of segregation.
For Rand Jimerson, a breaking point came in a junior high school civics class. His teacher had assigned J. Edgar Hoover’s Masters of Deceit for class reading, and he was on a panel discussing the book. His classmates, spurred by the book and the teacher, uniformly agreed that Civil Rights advocates were communists. Rand could not stay silent. He said the Civil Rights leaders he knew were mostly Christian ministers.
“All hell broke loose,” Rand Jimerson recalls. “I still see the image of my teacher, leaning out, her face purple.”
In his next class, a fellow student stood in front of him.
“Are you really a nigger lover?” he asked. Even today, Rand Jimerson is not sure there is a correct way to answer that question, given the language. But he summoned a response: “I think we should love all people.” Sometimes he wonders whether the boy was issuing a challenge or perhaps was just curious about a strange kind of person he had heard about, but never met.
A bit later, Rand encountered a complexity he didn’t expect. In his class, and in Ann’s, students cheered when they learned that President John F. Kennedy had been shot and killed. The same teacher who had been so angered by Rand’s dissent stepped in. She stopped the cheering and admonished her students. “To me, that was some glimmer of hope that not everyone was crazy about those issues,” he says.
Fifty years later, Ann Jimerson tempers her childhood Birmingham memories with humor and a sense of the excitement of the time. She laments losing her first babysitting job because the neighbors on Saulter Road moved; they didn’t want to live next door to communists, she says. And she missed out on hearing Joan Baez’s memorable version of “We Shall Overcome” because she turned down accompanying her mother to the Miles College concert.
Rand Jimerson calls Birmingham “a wrenching experience for a young boy to know almost everyone held an opposite opinion on segregation as I did.” As an adult, he knows it toughened him for future battles, including being a conscientious objector during the Vietnam War. He also knows that his comparatively well-protected childhood offered “just a glimpse of what it must have been like for those involved in the movement.” Still, today he approaches answering a ringing phone with apprehension, not anticipation. The imprint remains from threatening phone calls in Birmingham.
The Rev. Jim Jimerson returned to Birmingham in 1992 to speak on a panel during the dedication of the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute, along with his wife and Rand.
In her history of the institute, BCRI Board Chair Emerita Odessa Woolfolk writes that David Vann ( the young reformer who years earlier had brought Jimerson to Birmingham) first thought of such a museum when he visited the Holocaust museums in Israel.
“His visit convinced him that respectful remembrance of horror could be therapeutic for a community. Perhaps, he reasoned, Birmingham could heal itself through recalling its civil rights struggle and celebrating the changes it produced,” she writes.
For years, and sometimes still, the institute has been a contentious idea in Birmingham, with people divided over whether the history is best forgotten or remembered. For Jim Jimerson in 1992, the opening of the museum was very important, an affirmation that what had happened in Birmingham three decades earlier mattered.
“Dad started to speak,” Rand Jimerson recalls. “He was talking about the lesson for children. And then Dad broke down in sobs.”
Rand and Ann Jimerson have visited Birmingham over the years since 1963. They’ve told their story in an oral history interview for the Civil Rights Institute. They’ve revisited Homewood Middle School, been struck by the diversity of students there, been surprised by the poster on the wall celebrating that diversity. Researching his book, Rand worked with local archivists who are willing guides to him and others writing about Birmingham. Ann notices the new restaurants and enjoys visiting with steadfast friends from the Alabama Council on Human Relations. They are aware of a new Birmingham.
But they are propelled by their experiences in the old Birmingham. Rand Jimerson expresses the idea most formally. He describes himself now as a “social justice archivist.” In a recent speech, he talked about what that means:
“I wanted to follow my father’s example, to contribute something to making life better for people, to help achieve what Dr. King called ‘the beloved community.’ Archival documentation makes it possible for us to reconstruct the lives of ordinary people, as well as the rich and powerful. It enables us to hold governmental leaders and others accountable for their actions.”
Part of his work addresses how people deal with the past.
“Often it is a burden to have a troubled past,” he says. “It is a natural tendency to try to get rid of it.” He sees that in Germany’s efforts to obliterate signs of the Nazi era. But he sees a better approach in reconciliation efforts in South Africa and Canada. Rand Jimerson advocates coming to understand the past truthfully and fully. He says Birmingham’s story taught him to appreciate the thousands of people who have contributed in some way to civil rights progress. Certainly that includes the activists and the marchers. But it also includes people out of the limelight, negotiators as well as agitators, people leading the change and those who push it forward in quieter, subtler ways.
Not surprisingly, Birmingham features in Rand Jimerson’s next book project, a biography of the Rev. Robert Epperson “Bob” Hughes. Hughes was a Methodist minister from Gadsden who preceded Jim Jimerson at the Alabama Council on Human Relations. His stalwart efforts for racial change led to his being jailed in Bessemer and being asked to leave the Methodist Conference of Alabama.