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'My Soul Looks Back in Wonder'

<I>My Soul Looks Back in Wonder</I>
My Soul Looks Back in Wonder

A new book collects the stories of ordinary Americans who were involved in -- and transformed by -- the country's civil rights movements. NPR's Juan Williams, who compiled the oral histories, discusses them with NPR's Steve Inskeep.

"You have this notion of people discovering within themselves that they have the capacity to create social change," says Williams, author of My Soul Looks Back in Wonder. The book is part of the Voices of Civil Rights project, a collaboration between AARP and the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights.

One of the stories is told by Constancia Romilly, a white woman who grew up in a progressive community in Oakland, Calif. She came face to face with segregation one day when one of her classmates, an African-American cheerleader, was not invited to lunch with her white classmates. One of the white girls told Romilly, "We didn't think that she'd be comfortable coming because everybody that's going is white."

"It was as though centuries of ignorance had been stripped away from me," Romilly says. She became hysterical and started attacking the white girl. The experience led her into a life of political activism, including sit-ins to end segregation at lunch counters.

The African-American civil rights movement is not the book's only subject. It also includes essays about the efforts to win access for people with disabilities, people involved in the sanctuary movement for illegal immigrants and the women's rights movement.

The following is an excerpt from My Soul Looks Back in Wonder:

A Blinding Flash Opened Our Eyes

The four girls murdered by Ku Klux Klansmen in the September 15, 1963, bombing of Birmingham's Sixteenth Street Baptist Church did not die alone. Other children attended church that morning, including 14-year-old Carolyn Maull.

Maull, now 56, still attends the church. Her married name is Carolyn McKinstry, and she volunteers as a guide at the church, patiently answering a perennial question from visitors: Where were you when the bomb exploded?

That Sunday Morning I arrived at church about 9:30 to take my two younger brothers to their classes. At about 10:45, just before the 11:00 service started, I would give the attendance report and the collection report. I liked that little job. It made me feel a part of something important.

So I was coming from downstairs that morning, and when I got to the top of the steps the office phone was ringing.

A voice on the line said, "Two minutes." That was it -- not another word. Then he hung up.

Because so many people have asked, I've counted the steps from where I held the phone to where I was when the bomb went off beneath the girls' bathroom. It was about 15 steps.

I heard somebody say, "Hit the floor!" I just fell on the floor with all the stuff I was holding. The explosion sounded like rumbling thunder. I remember thinking there must be a storm outside. As soon as I thought that, the windows started shattering.

Then I heard the sound of many feet. I could hear people getting up, so I did too. We all went out through a back entrance, and once I got outside, I saw a hole in the side of the church where the stairs had been. A crowd had already formed because the rooming houses on both sides of the church had emptied out, and people were everywhere: Police, firemen, people wandering around looking for their relatives.

I went back into the church two or three times looking for my brothers, because they had been downstairs. Every time I went back in, I didn't see them. I remember feeling very frantic.

I found out later that my youngest brother, Allen, had taken off running after the bombing. He ran into the street, grabbed onto the first black man he saw, and clung to his leg. My father was on his way to his weekend job when he got word of the bombing and turned around. As he drove back to town in the direction of the church, he came across my other brother, Wendell.

My dad went back to work that morning after he took us home. At about 4 p.m., we learned the girls had died. The next day the FBI came by the house wanting to interview me.

Four of my close friends had been in the church basement putting on their choir robes, and the explosion killed them all (Denise McNair, Carole Robertson, Addie Mae Collins, and Cynthia Wesley). I learned much later that a fifth girl -- Addie's sister, Sarah -- had been maimed. Twenty-one others were wounded as well.

The next day I went to school and sat there in a stupor the whole time. Kids said things to me like, "Oh, it's not that bad" and, "Come on, get with it! We've got to go out and play!" Maybe it's a good thing that kids won't let you wallow in stuff too long.

My parents did not talk about the bombing, nor did we talk about it in friends' homes or with their parents. When adults wanted to talk about certain matters back then, they would ask the children to leave the room.

I remember visiting a lot of places with my grandparents and parents, but I don't remember any conversations about the racial situation in Birmingham. I think they probably whispered among themselves about those kinds of things. The problem was, how can they tell you about it without scaring you? If you grow up in a family with lots of love, sometimes you don't know how bad things are. You don't want to share all the horror stories with children until they get a perspective.

My father had a master's degree in physics and chemistry, yet he coped in his own way. After teaching his classes at the high school, he worked a part-time second job as a waiter at the Country Club of Birmingham. By deliberately concealing his erudition from the folks he had to wait on at get-togethers of Birmingham's white elite, he managed to glean a lot of survival tips, and he passed those along to his children.

Even before the bombing our church rallies had persuaded me to join the student marches. I never even thought about discussing it with my parents, though. I knew they'd worry about me. Plus I knew they were opposed to taking such a direct stand.

One May morning in 1963, I squeezed out through the Parker High School gates and headed downtown with about 200 other students. We paraded toward town and headed toward the church, but because of the police lines and tanks, we ended up at Kelly Ingram Park. Then came the water hoses. "They didn't say anything about water hoses!" I kept thinking: "Where did this come from?"

The water stung like a whip and hit like a cannon. The force of it knocked you down like you weighed only 20 pounds, pushing people around like rag dolls. We tried to hold onto the building, but that was no use.

After it was over, I walked back home. It was dusk, and school let out at 3 p.m., so it was a couple of hours after I should have been at home.

My parents took one look at my appearance -- I was still wet, and my sweater was torn --and my father said, "Where in the devil have you been?" I told him.

I didn't really hear what they said to me, but I'm sure they were afraid for me and didn't want to show how much. My father told me I could not go back, that I could not be a part of the demonstrations.

But I could go to church. And if I happened to be at the church and somebody happened to organize a demonstration, I could join it. He never connected the two.

Excerpted from My Soul Looks Back in Wonder by Juan Williams, published by Sterling Publishing Co. Inc. Copyright © 2004 AARP.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Juan Williams
Juan Williams, one of America's leading journalists, is a news analyst, appearing regularly on NPR's Morning Edition. Knowledgeable and charismatic, Williams brings insight and depth — hallmarks of NPR programs — to a wide spectrum of issues and ideas.
Steve Inskeep is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.
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