1963: The Year Everything Changed
In my family the current year is 50 A.J., not 2013. On August 16, 1963 my little sister, Jennifer was born. We now date everything from that day. I, for example, was born in 11 B.J. (Before Jennifer), my sister Ronnee was born in 10 B.J. and my brother Jed was born in 8 B.J. Before that fateful day things had been going along swimmingly for us during the later Eisenhower and early Kennedy administrations. As the oldest son, I was obviously the most favored. I got the best presents at Christmas; my birthday was a family holiday. My sister Ronnee was showered with the latest young girl fashions and had her hair combed every night by my mother. Jed, as the youngest, was treated like the prodigal son.
Then the whole dynamic of our family changed. Everything revolved around the new, cute baby – the golden child. Suddenly, my brother Jed disappeared from photographs, the next photo taken of him was at his high school graduation in 10 A.J. Ronnee’s room in our house was taken over by a crib and baby things. She did not get any new clothes until 5 A.J. She got no sleep until that date either. Suddenly, I, at the tender age of eleven, was given responsibilities. If the golden child cried and my parents were doing something, I had to calm her down. If the golden child wanted her blanket, I had to find it. If the golden child wanted to play, I had to play with her. It was chaos.
To get away from these crushing family obligations, I took an outside job. I became a paper boy in the first month of 1 A.J. Except for the fact that I had to get up at 6:00 am to deliver the Bangor Daily News I really enjoyed the job. My route was fairly simple in the small town of Mapleton, Maine. I delivered the news to about 45 customers over a small block of the town, at the end of the week I got paid a dime for every customer. The thing I enjoyed the most, besides the exorbitant wages, was that I got to read the paper before my father. Dad, at the breakfast table, never shared the paper with anyone until he had read the whole thing, especially the sports section. At the time I was a secret New York Yankees fan in Boston Red Sox territory (please don’t tell anyone, I have since repented). I was keen every morning to see how Mickey Mantle, Roger Maris, Whitey Ford and Joe Pepitone did on the diamond the night before. Now I got the scoop before anyone else.
One crisp Monday morning, September 16th, I opened the stack of newspapers to see a large headline on the front page – “Church Bombed in Birmingham, Alabama – Four Negro Girls Killed.” I remember it was hard to make much sense of the story. Why would anyone want to bomb a church? Why would anyone want to kill four little girls who were my age? I asked my 5th grade teacher (who also happened to be my mother) about this and she explained that there were people who hated other people because their skin color was different. This was a shocking revelation to me. Then things got worse. In November, the headlines screamed “President Kennedy Killed in Dallas.” I have since pondered over those events.
By some cosmic twist of fate, I am now the Director of the History Center of the city in that shocking September headline. Birmingham became the Gettysburg of civil rights in 1963, the turning point in a movement that began a hundred years earlier. After 1963, the city changed. It changed because brave people on both sides of the issue, tired of the strife, tired of the negative headlines, came together to end segregation. The events in Birmingham fifty years ago are being celebrated across the city this year, by city and county government, by schools, by local businesses and by cultural institutions. In September of 2013, the 50th anniversary of the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church, the world will be watching Birmingham for another reason – to learn from its example.
On April 1, as part of the celebration, a new exhibit will open at the Birmingham History Center entitled; “1963, The Year Everything Changed.” It has as its focus the month by month story of Birmingham, the nation and the world; civil rights stories, sports stories, interesting personalities of 1963, music, art, inventions, and space adventures. In 1963 the pop tart and lava lamps were invented, along with zip codes, touch tone telephones and easy-bake ovens. It was the year that the Beach Boys sang about surfing. It was year that Michael Jordan and Brad Pitt were born. It was the year that a Russian woman traveled into space and Gordon Cooper slept on the launch pad at Cape Canaveral. It was a year of fire hoses and “I have a Dream.” It was the year of Liz Taylor and Richard Burton. It was the year that John John saluted his father’s passing casket. It was the year my wonderful, amazing sister was born. It was the year that everything changed.