Tag Archive for: Civil Rights

We are Living History— by T.K. Thorne

We are living history.

In 1958, the janitor at Temple Beth-El in Birmingham, Alabama discovered a satchel in the building’s window well with a fuse running from it. Fifty-four sticks of dynamite were in that bag. The fuse had burned out within a minute of igniting it. No one knows what happened, perhaps an early morning rain or a fault in the fuse itself.

It was a pivotal moment in time. The crime was never solved, but the perpetrators were mostly likely a Nazi-inspired organization called the National States Rights Party headquartered in Birmingham. They hated Blacks and Catholics and Jews.

Today, the incidents of hate crimes against Jews and Jewish institutions are rising at frightening rates. Along with other activities, like the attempted armed insurrection of our government, it is chilling and feels like it could be 1958 or even the 1930s when powerful men in this country echoed Hitler’s poisonous sentiments toward Jews, men like Henry Ford, the car manufacture magnate; Charles Lindbergh, the country’s famous “golden boy;” and Father Coughlin, a catholic priest with thousands of listeners on his radio show.

Having a common enemy often binds people together. Thus, the citizens of Germany coalesced when Jews were targeted as “the enemy.” But that works both ways.

Sixty-four years after the attempted bombing of Beth-El, the synagogue is working on a civil rights exhibit about looking to the future by examining the past. I was asked to be a speaker at the launch event because I wrote this book—Behind the Magic Curtain: Secrets, Spies, and Unsung White Allies of Birmingham’s Civil Rights Days.

It took eight years to complete. While I was writing it, I thought—Will anyone be interested in this or will it just be another tome for the historians’ bookshelves, if that? But it had become a labor of love, so I labored on.

I woke from the “coma” of writing to find my book relevant. That was not necessarily a good thing but was why I was speaking at Beth-El’s event.

For the most part, the White community has welcomed the book’s revelations about what  happened behind the scenes (or behind the curtain) in a city that changed the world—stories of secret missions carried out by the police and sheriff’s departments, as well as little-known deeds of civil rights’ allies in the city branded with images of “dogs and firehoses” used against children, an image seared into the nation’s consciousness.

I tried to honor the Movement as well and weave my stories into the context of the day and the efforts of those seeking long overdue equal rights and justice. But I’ve had little feedback from the Black community. After I spoke at Beth-El, however, a diminutive, elderly Black woman approached me and asked me to sign her copy of Behind the Magic Curtain, which she had brought to the event.

I did, of course, and she told me she had been one of the children who had marched for freedom in 1963 and how much she had enjoyed the book and how much it meant to read confirmation of things whispered in her home and community when she was young, things she had never known were true or not. It completed a circle for her.

It was a small interaction, lasting only a few moments in the chaos after the event, but it meant a lot to me. She had probably given little thought as a child that she was living a pivotal moment in history. Nor did those who went to pray at Temple Beth-El one morning, or those who listened to Father Coughlin, Henry Ford, and Charles Lindbergh spew supremist views that eventually embraced genocide.

We are living in a pivotal moment. It will be written about (and already has) and one day we will be the ones who say, “I was there.” What are we going to tell future generations about what we did . . . or what we didn’t do?

T.K.Thorne is a retired police captain who writes Books, which, like this blog, go wherever her curiosity and imagination take her.

Behind the Magic Curtain – by T. K. Thorne

 

Writer, humanist,
          dog-mom, horse servant and cat-slave,
       Lover of solitude
          and the company of good friends,
        New places, new ideas
           and old wisdom.

 

 

Four men who loved the city of Birmingham, Alabama asked me to write a
book. I look back on that day when I met them in the high-rise office
of a prominent attorney. They were all strangers, decades older. They
had lived through “pivotal nation-changing days.”
Three of them had been in the thick of happenings.  

As I sat at the polished hardwood table, I thought possibly they assumed
I was a scholar of civil rights because I had recently written a book
about the investigation of the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing that
killed four young black girls in Birmingham in 1963 (Last Chance for Justice),
but to my surprise, the gentleman who invited me to that meeting said
he had done so because of a totally different book, a historical novel
set thousands of years in the past in ancient Turkey (Noah’s Wife).
I had to ask him why he thought that qualified me. He said, “If you
could write a book about Noah’s wife and make me believe that was what
really happened, then you can tell the true stories of what happened
here.” 

To say I was reticent was an understatement. What they were asking me to
do seemed a huge commitment, and so much had been documented about the
era, what could I possibly add? Then one of the men sent me his notes
about a day in 1962 when he pushed through the double glass doors of The Birmingham News, weary from an all-night stakeout with police, and
his eccentric, powerful boss shouted for him to join him for breakfast.
What was said at that breakfast changed a young reporter’s life and
affected the tangled web of history.  

I was hooked.

After the better part of a decade, it is done. Regretfully, three of the fine gentlemen who trusted me to write this did not live to see it. I only hope I have been true to their vision.

 

 

What folks are saying:

Behind the Magic Curtain: Secrets, Spies, and Unsung White Allies of Birmingham’s Civil Rights Days is a remarkable look at a historic city enmeshed in racial tensions, revealing untold or forgotten stories of secret deals, law enforcement intrigue, and courage alongside pivotal events that would sweep change across the nation.

T. K. Thorne has hit another home run with Behind the Magic Curtain. For five and a half decades we have read accounts of the civil rights era in Birmingham and Selma written by those with a particular ax to grind. Thorne is an excellent reporter, recognizing the nuances that “outsiders” or opinionated writers could not see or chose to overlook. Her reading and especially her interviews over the past several years have been remarkable, allowing her to give far more accurate details than we have seen before. For those who want to know the secrets of what really went on behind the “magic curtain” in those pivotal nation-changing days, days that brought the Civil Rights Bill in 1964 and the Voting Rights Bill in 1965, this is an important book to read.
—Douglas M. Carpenter, Retired Episcopal minister and son of Alabama’s Episcopal Bishop, C. C. J. Carpenter.

In Behind the Magic Curtain, T. K. Thorne introduces us to
those who operated behind the scenes in the civil rights movement in
Alabama, shedding light on the individual moral complexities of these
participants—some firebrands, some reluctant players, and some predators
who worked for their own gain. This journalistic exploration of a
complicated time in Alabama’s social history will sit comfortably on the
shelf next to histories by Dianne McWhorter, Glenn Eskew, and Taylor
Branch. — Anthony Grooms, author of Bombingham and The Vain Conversation

Deeply engaging, Behind the Magic Curtain tells a forgotten part of the Birmingham story, prompting many “real time memories” for me. The lively and descriptive writing brought the characters and settings to life, while diving into the white community’s role in all its complexities. This is a treasure trove of stories about activities and perspectives not well known to the general public. In particular, journalist Tom Lankford’s sleuthing and the machinations of the Birmingham Police Department, along with the risk-averse role of the local newspapers, and a full blown portrait of the inscrutable Birmingham News VIP, Vincent Townsend, make for a fascinating read.
—Odessa Woolfolk, educator, community activist, and founding president of the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute

“T.K. writes like a seasoned news editor, meticulously hunting down facts and laying out the context in a colorful, intriguing way. Behind the Magic Curtain documents many untold stories and faithfully relates my own personal, unforgettable memories of a time of racial transition in Birmingham.”
—Tom Lankford, journalist for The Birmingham News

 “Novelist and former Birmingham Police Captain T.K. Thorne demonstrates
there was more to Birmingham of the Civil Rights Era than Bull Connor,
Klansmen, and African-American protestors.  Behind that “Magic Curtain,”
an ethnically diverse group from downtown to the surrounding bedroom
communities of ministers, priests, rabbis, newspaper reporters, and
housewives comprised a community belying monikers like ‘Bomingham’ and
‘Murder Capital of America,’ and fighting for justice in the Magic
City.”
—Earl Tilford, author of Turning the Tide: The University of Alabama in the 1960s

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T.K. is a retired police captain who writes books, which, like this blog, go wherever her interest and imagination take her.  More at TKThorne.com


A New Day Is Coming

Not long ago, my mother told my children a story that I had heard many times growing up. It concerned the time that she—19 at the time—and my grandmother decided to take the bus from New York City to Miami, Florida purely out a sense of whimsy. My grandfather had just died and I guess they needed a distraction. One hundred hours on a Greyhound bus? I’d call that a distraction. My mother grew up in Brooklyn, a multi-racial, multi-ethnic enclave in the late 1950’s. I don’t have a clear sense as to whether the races and different ethnicities mingled all that much, but I do know that there was nothing like what she and my grandmother experienced on their way down to Florida. My mother told my kids that once the bus crossed the Mason-Dixon line, the bus driver stopped the bus and forced a group of African-American children to go to the back of the bus where they would sit for the rest of the ride. My mother and my grandmother were shocked; in New York, sure there was racial tension, but African-Americans, for the most part, had the same freedoms as whites. (Oh, except for that pesky right to vote without jumping through ridiculous hoops. That would come later.) Even further along the journey, some place in South Carolina, the bus driver stopped the bus so that the passengers could eat lunch before resuming the trip. My mother and grandmother headed down the street, saw a diner, and walked in, preparing to sit down to order lunch. The lunch counter worker sadly explained to them that he wouldn’t be able to serve them but helpfully suggested an all-white diner a few doors down where they could get lunch. The diner, you see, was “colored-only.”

The memories of seeing the faces of the kids forced to the back of the bus and the people sitting at the lunch counter—looking at my mother and grandmother as if they were crazy even to enter a “colored only” establishment—have stayed with my mother all these years. She remembers segregated restrooms: men, ladies, and “colored-only,”—unisex, obviously; she remembers “colored-only” water fountains; and she remembers other forms of discrimination that were foreign to her. My mother and grandmother were quite sure how to act or behave in this alternate world, this bizarre society. They made it to Florida, encountered their first palmetto bug, and went right back to the Greyhound bus station, where they hopped the first bus that would bring them back to New York.

Despite its problems, their hometown city didn’t seem so bad.

My mother got married a few years later and would have her bridal shower in 1961 at my uncle’s house in Brooklyn. Her pictures from that day show a diverse crowd of women—there was Nasha, a gorgeous opera singer working part-time at Gimbel’s in sales to make a living. She was the daughter of Russian immigrants. There as my beautiful Aunt Dorothy, a Julie Andrews-lookalike who had the most mellifluous speaking voice, touched with an English accent. And there was Birdie, a stunning African-American woman in a black sheath dress and a chignon, who to me—a girl growing up in a lily white town—looked like an exotic queen with her high cheekbones and wide smile. And there was a Blanche, another co-worker of my mother’s from Gimbel’s, who like Birdie, was a fabulously-chic African American woman, dressed to the nines, as women did in the ‘60s, for this festive event. In one picture, Birdie and Blanche are smiling and holding one of the ridiculously-constructed bow hats that many engaged women are forced to wear at their bridal showers. I remember looking at the picture, and not having met any African-American people at this point in my life—it was probably 1970—I was struck by the friendship that existed between all of these women, from disparate backgrounds. This was not a “whites-only” event; it was an event that brought a group of joyous coworkers together to celebrate the special event to take place in my mother’s life. And there is no color—except maybe yellow or gold, the colors of joy—to describe this event and how the radiance of all of the guests jumped off the page and out of that photo.

At the time of the shower, neither Birdie nor Blanche had probably never voted given the disenfranchisement that was rampant at the time.

I think that experiences like the ones my mother had south of the Mason-Dixon line and in the diner in South Carolina change you forever. Sometimes they change you for the good, sometimes not. I’ve heard people say that Barack Obama is really biracial and perhaps not officially African American. All I can say is that as a child, he would have been forced to the back of the bus once it passed into Confederate territory, and he would have been allowed to sit at the counter at the diner in South Carolina, probably watching my embarrassed grandmother and mother slink out of the establishment, ashamed of their ignorance, but moreso, ashamed by their country.

It has been a momentous week and I’m not sure that the magnitude of what we have experienced has sunk in yet. My children were surprised, horrified, and not at all believing in the story that my mother had to tell. And I’m glad for all three of those reactions. Their disbelief is understandable because the world that my mother and I grew up in is one that was vastly different from the one they are growing up in today. Their horror at hearing how others were treated may lead them never to malign or slight anyone again, I hope. But most importantly, their surprise is best of all. Because in their world, there is no reason that a woman, a Jew, a Muslim, or an African American can become president. Some day, maybe we’ll look beyond sex, religion, and/or race.

And look at that: we already have.

Let us with a fixed, firm, hearty, earnest, and unswerving determination move steadily on and on, fanning the flame of true liberty until the last vestige of oppression has been destroyed, and when that eventful period shall arrive, when, in the selection of rulers, both State and Federal, we shall know no North, no East, no South, no West, no white nor colored, no Democrat nor Republican, but shall choose men because of their moral and intrinsic value, their honesty and integrity, their love of unmixed liberty, and their ability to perform well the duties to be committed to their charge. (From a speech delivered in 1872, by Jonathan J. Wright, Associate Justice of the South Carolina Supreme Court.)

Maggie Barbieri