Rickey Powell opened his mouth and the song filled the Red Mountain Cabaret Theater:
“We shall overcome, we shall overcome,
We shall overcome some day,
Oh, deep in my heart I do believe,
We shall overcome someday.”
Powell was the first of six storytellers to share his experiences about growing up in the Civil Rights Era during Marching On, Friday, March 21. “We Shall Overcome” is described by the Library of Congress as the most powerful song of the 20th century. Its theme echoed throughout the evening.
Powell, a Broadway performer and jazz vocalist, was 15 years old on September 15, 1963. A member of 16th St. Baptist Church, he missed the children’s program that day to attend a funeral with his mother.
“This gargantuan blast shook my house,” Powell said. “My house shook like it was toilet paper.”
Powell lost three close friends in the blast that day, including Cynthia Wesley.
“What would my friend have become had she lived?” he asked. “The sadness was I didn’t have any closure … In spite of it all, our journey must continue.”
The Birmingham Civil Rights Institute and ArcLight Stories collaborated to present the spoken-word event, which turned the spotlight on true, personal stories originally told to BCRI by participants in its Oral History Project. The project is one of the first and largest ongoing oral history research projects in the United States.
BCRI Human Rights fellow, Tammi Sharpe, brought a new perspective to the event with her project, Reconciling with the Past: The Legacy of Segregation. The project expanded the Oral History Project library to include the voices of white individuals from families did not actively support the Civil Rights Movement.
“We still have to look at these stories and address them,” Sharpe said.
She explained that, although to some it may seem that segregation is a notion of the distant past, the storytelling event shows that the South is still full of the reminders of segregation for both black and white citizens who lived through the heyday of the Civil Rights Movement.
In 1964, Bob Powell was the newly ordained pastor of Hunter Street Baptist Church in Pike County, Miss. Less than six months prior to his ordination, a civil rights worker had been murdered nearby.
“I learned sometimes culture dictates to religion what to do,” the pastoral counselor said onstage.
After sharing a Bible verse with his congregation that challenged their racist notions, Bob Powell said he and his wife where strongly encouraged to leave town.
The verse read: “There is no longer slave or free, for you all are free in Christ Jesus.”
Zion City native Catherine Burks-Brooks, was a college student and Freedom Rider in 1961. Sitting in front of her mug shot, Brooks told the story about being arrested by Eugene “Bull” Connor at a Greyhound station in 1961.
With sass and grit, Brooks and her friends survived being dropped off by Connor in a predominately white neighborhood.
Other storytellers included Birmingham broadcast legend Shelley Stewart and former College Hills resident Elizabeth Crowson Byrd.
For attorney George Andrews Jr., son of Alabama Congressman George W. Andrews and witness to the congressional debates leading to passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, sharing his experience was cathartic.
“You tell how you feel. You tell it like it is, and you tell the truth,” Andrews said after the performance.
Andrews explained that this was the first time he told his story before an audience, and that he was nervous before he stepped onstage.
As a young man, Andrews found himself at odds with the racism expressed by his peers.
The event was a sold-out performance ending with Andrews’ account. In a way of explaining the senseless racism among white people in the South during the Civil Rights Era and his struggle to change his own beliefs, Andrews sang from Rodgers and Hammerstein’s South Pacific:
“You’ve got to be taught to be afraid
Of people whose eyes are oddly made,
And people whose skin is a diff’rent shade,
You’ve got to be carefully taught.
You’ve got to be taught before it’s too late,
Before you are six or seven or eight,
To hate all the people your relatives hate,
You’ve got to be carefully taught!”