As Black History Month begins in a year fraught with civil rights importance in Birmingham, it is worthy to note that there are still exemplars of both black history and the Civil Rights Movement living among us.
Ruth Barefield-Pendleton, 86, is one such example. Fifty years ago, between April 9 and June 14, 1963, she was acting as secretary for the Central Committee, the group of civil rights activists who were involved in the Birmingham Campaign and in negotiating with the white community to end segregation in the city.
“I always tell my friends,” she said, “that when Dr. King and the SCLC came to Birmingham, Ruth was already out there working.”
She’s not bragging, just stating a fact – one which is documented in the new book under the Birmingham Historical Society imprint, Minutes, Central Committee 1963. Mrs. Barefield-Pendleton will be signing her book at the Birmingham Public Library on Saturday, as noted in more detail on page 16 of this week’s issue of Weld.
In 1960, before the official Birmingham Movement in 1963, Mrs. Barefield-Pendleton served as sort of a “den mother” to Miles College students who were engaged in protests to desegregate downtown stores. They had begun with sit-ins at several downtown department stores with segregated lunch counters, and in 1962 began a Selective Buying Campaign urging blacks not spend their money at establishments which were not integrated.
“On the weekends and on some evenings after school we would take these students to every community in Jefferson County and we would blanket the communities with leaflets urging them not to shop downtown,” Mrs. Barefield-Pendleton said. “This was before the Birmingham Civil Rights Movement began.”
As noted in Minutes, she was there when Martin Luther King, Jr. and Fred Shuttlesworth — at the helm of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and the Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights, respectively — came together. “When SCLC (Southern Christian Leadership Conference) and the Alabama Christian Movement (for Human Rights, or ACMHR) and the students joined in forces, then it really became effective,” Mrs. Barefield-Pendleton said.
The book, which presents her notes from the Central Committee period, chronicles a moment in Birmingham history when hard-fought change was imminent. It was during that spring and summer – to be further chronicled in Weld’s ongoing No More Bull series — that children and adults ( including King) would march and be jailed; that Birmingham’s city government would change; that segregation would be repealed by law. Black history — and American history — were being made in these streets.
Mrs. Barefield-Pendleton, who still lives on Dynamite Hill, two blocks from where Arthur Shores did when his house was blown up by Klansmen, did not know she was in the middle of history at the time.
“I will tell you the same thing I told one of my young friends: We did not have our eyes on history,” she said. “I am just as surprised as you or anyone else that my minutes have become part of the written history of the Birmingham Civil Rights Movement. I was just taking notes of what was being said and what was being done.”
“When they asked me to take the notes, I did not write any of my personal opinion in my notes,” she continued. What she wrote instead was what Movement leaders would need later in a given evening’s mass meetings to give civil rights progress reports to demonstrators. “From the minutes, they would make their reports to the mass meetings,” she said.
Examples from Minutes show how much of historical importance was contained in her secretarial accounts. In the report of April 11, 1963, she recorded, “Dr. Martin King moved that we continue Movement of Direct Action that had been started over the weekend. He explained how the State Injunction differed from the Federal Injunction issued in Albany [Georgia]. He stated that if the Injunction had been issued on basis of equal Justice for All, we should abide by it. But our action is based on a Moral mandate, backed up by a Constitutional Mandate.”
From April 26, 1963: “Dr.M.L. King, Jr. emphasized that we must act and move from a position of Power…Dr.M.L. King stressed the fact that we must re-structure our plans – our time-table of strategy. Much discussion followed. It was moved that on May 2 (next Thursday), we would have — a major demonstration – last march with real power. That Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth would lead this march. The motion was carried.”
The report on the meeting May 20, 1963 shows the differences that sometimes arose among civil rights leaders over points of strategy and sheds light on how those issues were addressed. “Dr. Martin L. King Jr. stated why the meeting had been called. 1,081 students had been expelled from the Birmingham City Schools today, and it is necessary for the Steering Committee to decide what will be the course of action. Dr. King said, that this was a very serious situation and we must move with wise restraint and with united calmness; that we must not respond to this without weighing all the consequences. Dr. King said that he knew nothing of the hand bills calling for a mass walk out of students until one was placed in his hand…
“The body agreed with our leader, Dr. King that in response to the Board of Education’s drastic action, we would move out on a responsible path and with reasonable and restrained unity. That we would ask all students who have not received statements saying that they are expelled to return to school tomorrow. That we would ask our lawyers to look into the legality of the matter.”
The book also includes copies of significant documents which Mrs. Barefield-Pendleton collected during the Central Committee meetings, including, for example, statements by King and Shuttlesworth on May 10, 1963 noting the provisions of the agreements reached by black and white citizens to desegregate public facilities, the hiring and promotion of black workers, the release of demonstrators from jails, and the re-establishment of communications between the white and black representatives of the divided community.
Mrs. Barefield-Pendleton saved her meeting notes. One day many years later, she was watching television with her husband (the late Dr. Tyree J. Barefield-Pendleton), and saw historian Taylor Branch being interviewed by Julian Bond. “Taylor Branch was saying that it was too bad that there were no written words, no written history of the Birmingham Civil Rights Movement. I turned to my husband and said, ‘I’ve got written words about it,’” she said.
She first provided a ledger of her notes to the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute when it opened in 1992. And later, she provided them to Marjorie White at the Birmingham Historical Society, who was thrilled to gain access to this part of civil rights history which has been only partly understood.
“It’s a fascinating story from a local perspective,” White said, “a new perspective on what was going on. It’s a remarkable account… This is a primary source document. This is a new primary source document.”
The Birmingham Public Library, as part of its observance of Black History Month, is presenting Mrs. Barefield-Pendleton in a book signing on Saturday from 2-4 p.m. at the downtown branch. The important of the annual observance is not lost on the former Central Committee secretary.
“I just wish it was 12 months a year, not just the month of February,” Mrs. Barefield-Pendleton said. “Anything we can do to get the message over to our young people (about) what has happened in the past is well worth it. I firmly believe if you don’t know your history you are subject to repeat it.”
Other Black History Month events
As February continues, there are numerous related events worth noting.
Teenage members of the ArtPlay Make It Happen Performing Ensemble will portray legends of the Civil Rights Movement in their original play, Lessons Well Learned, on February 16 at UAB’s Alys Stephens Performing Arts Center. For tickets and more information, visit alysstephens.org.
There are educational tours and other programs at the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute. “The Birmingham Civil Rights Institute engages people year-round in exploring African-American history by telling the story of Birmingham’s civil rights history and how it impacted and inspired social change nationally and internationally,” said Priscilla Hancock Cooper, BCRI’s Vice President of Institutional Programs. “Because of the public interest in the 50th anniversary of civil rights events in our city, we are seeing record demand for tours and outreach programs for February.”
And, aside from the Minutes book signing, the Birmingham Public Library has numerous events planned. For more information, visit bplonline.org/1963.