Worlds Apart

Growing Up in a Bubble in Birmingham

Pam Powell

A large Confederate flag filled most of one wall of my grandfather’s study in his Birmingham home during the 1950s and 1960s. It was always the first thing I noticed when I walked into the dimly lit room—a startling shout of hot red and star-studded blue against a dark stone wall.

On the opposite wall was a painting of the Princess Pocahontas, who, according to genealogical research by my great-grandmother, was said to be our direct ancestor. I heard once that my grandfather, proud of being related to royalty but uncomfortable with the darkness of the princess’s complexion, had Pocahontas’s skin lightened a bit before he hung the painting.

My grandmother used to take me with her to the grocery store in her old Dodge. When I was about six years old, I remember getting into her car one day and asking her the name of a Black lady we had seen earlier that day. She quickly reprimanded me, “Pam, you never call a colored woman a ‘lady.’” Actually, she probably didn’t say “colored woman,” but something else. I remember feeling smacked down by the reprimand. And I was careful not to repeat that grave breach of etiquette in the following years.

Piety and Prejudice

My grandmother was a formidable woman, imposing in girth, bearing, and temperament. The Bible was paramount in her life and in her household; she devoutly embraced Old Testament scripture, even enforcing some of the moral practices dictated by the Book of Leviticus—she forbade her children to eat pork or other meat from animals with cloven hooves, for example. She spent her evenings in prayer and Bible study, while my grandfather played solitaire in his study under the regal gaze of Pocahontas and the crossed bars and stars of the Confederacy.

How my grandmother reconciled Biblical teachings with her racism, or if she even saw any conflict between those beliefs, I’ll never know. Perhaps, like many white supremacists, she cherrypicked Biblical passages that, to her mind, forbade racial mixing; or perhaps she believed the racist propaganda that twisted Genesis 9 (the story of Noah’s curse of his son Ham) into “justification” for the servitude of people of color. As for New Testament teachings, she surely embraced Jesus’s teachings on giving to the poor and helping those in need; yet whatever Christian duty she felt to care for the “least of us,” her respect for human worth and dignity apparently did not extend to Black people.

Subordination and Silence

My grandparents had a maid, Ella Belle, who, in the early years of her employment, lived in the “servant’s quarters,” a small stone cottage behind their sprawling house on Clairmont Avenue. Most of my memories of Ella Belle are of the sumptuous Sunday dinners (usually featuring fried chicken or chicken pot pie) that she cooked on the gas stove in my grandmother’s kitchen. There was a servant-summoning buzzer installed under the carpet beneath my grandmother’s chair at the dining table, and whenever she stomped on the buzzer, Ella Belle appeared with more food or refilled our glasses of iced tea. I remember being in the kitchen once when the buzzer rang, and it was so jarring that I think I jumped a few inches off the floor; for a moment, I tried to imagine being Ella Belle, exhausted from cooking, sitting silently in the kitchen, waiting for that dreadful buzzer to summon her to her servile duties.

Ella Belle was tall, thin, very dark, always smiling in her crisply starched black-and-white maid’s uniform. I remember her as kind and, at least to my naïve eyes, utterly and exclusively devoted to meeting the needs of the white family who employed her. She was a tireless caretaker for many years, cooking meals, cleaning, doing laundry, even serving as a nanny to some of my younger cousins. Everyone loved her as “part of the family.” Nobody stopped to consider that she probably had a family of her own who needed her care more than our family did. Nobody wondered if, when she went home at night, she had anything left to give her own loved ones. In fact, nobody really knew, or asked, anything about her; I don’t even know if she had a husband or children.

That was the culture I was born into, in 1948, a caste system in which African Americans were seen as subordinate or peripheral—if they were seen at all. It was the only world I knew, and I didn’t question it. It was just the way it was.

Later, the sinister underpinnings of this culture came into sharp focus, when I learned that my ancestors had owned a plantation—and slaves—in Butler County during the 1800s and had fought for the Confederacy during the Civil War. In fact, my great-great grandfather was Butler County’s delegate to the 1861 Alabama Secession Convention that voted for Alabama to withdraw from the Union.

A Whitewashed Childhood

I grew up across town from my grandparents, in an all-white neighborhood on the western end of Birmingham, near Birmingham-Southern College, where my father was a theatre professor. We lived on “faculty row” (Greensboro Road), not far from the steel mills, which regularly lit up the skies behind our house with fiery orange plumes and dusted our windowsills with black soot on summer nights. All of my playmates and friends on Greensboro Road were white, and I went to all-white schools—Woodrow Wilson grammar school, and then an all-girls’ high school across town called Brooke Hill (now Altamont).

During the early 1960s, racial unrest was building in the city, and I remember hearing talk of the bombings on Center Street (“Dynamite Hill”), which was just a couple of miles from our house. I was only vaguely aware of the bombings, however; they seemed far away, as if in another world, despite their actual physical proximity. I don’t recall ever hearing any of the blasts. Looking back, I’m astonished by my deafness and blindness to what was happening all around me. I was a self-absorbed, clueless white teenager caught up in the struggle to elbow my way into the elite “over the mountain” social circles that my well-meaning mother had insisted I navigate by placing me in that privileged private school. I was only peripherally aware of the protests and demonstrations that were going on downtown.

Illuminating Influences

There was one person in my life whose progressive beliefs helped open my eyes, as I grew older, to the scourge of racism in Birmingham, and that was my father, Arnold Powell. “Arnie,” as my brother and I called him, had a rather laissez-faire parenting style and wasn’t given to teaching us moral lessons, but the example he set was one of love, open-mindedness, intellectual curiosity, fairness, and compassion for all people, especially those who were less fortunate than we were. He loved exploring new ideas, challenging norms, and breaking down barriers; as a role model, he profoundly influenced both my brother and me.

My father’s liberalism was obvious to anyone who knew him, particularly in the plays he wrote and his experimental theatre projects, as well as in his admiration of President John F. Kennedy and his fierce loyalty to the college’s then (1961-62) president, Henry King Stanford. Several times I heard my father praising the integrity and moral courage of Stanford, who supported the rights of BSC students to participate in mixed race activities and protests, despite pressure from the college’s conservative Board of Trustees and objections from the wider Birmingham community. In fact, I think it was mostly during Stanford’s tenure at BSC that the Methodist-affiliated college earned the reputation in certain circles as a “hotbed” of liberalism (not to mention, absurdly, atheism and Communism). I remember my father’s outrage when a cross was burned in Henry King Stanford’s yard and his frustration when Stanford, who finally grew weary of battling Birmingham’s racist culture, resigned his presidency and left Birmingham for Miami.

Crosses were also burned on the lawn of one of our outspoken neighbors, who regularly received threatening phone calls. To my knowledge, we never received any such threats, and I don’t remember if my father ever participated in any protests or marches. Perhaps he and my mother chose to keep a low profile in order to avoid endangering my brother and me. Such caution would have been more than justified; as I found out later, some of the families of outspoken liberals in the city were traumatized by serious threats to their children. My friend Carolyn Fuller’s mother, for example, once received a phone call threatening to send Carolyn home from school in 10 pieces.

One night, when I was a teenager, I woke up to the sound of shouting coming from our dining room, where my parents were having dinner with my maternal grandfather, who was visiting from Atlanta. I got out of bed, curious about what was going on, and found out that my grandfather—who regularly exasperated my father by carelessly tossing around the “n” word—had so infuriated my father with his racial epithets that the two had ended up in a shouting match, and my father had literally picked up my grandfather and thrown him out of the house.

Trauma and Grief

I was 15 years old in the spring of 1963 when major events of the Civil Rights Movement began to unfold in Birmingham. Dr. King had chosen our city as ground zero for the great push for equal rights because it was, as he said, “the most segregated city in the country”—a distinction that shocked me at the time; as repugnant as the city’s racist culture had become to me, I had not yet learned the full extent of the city’s racial and industrial history, including the exploitation of African American prisoners in Alabama’s convict leasing system. I was also unaware—thanks to the selective history taught in my grade school textbooks—that much of this country’s wealth, not to mention its physical infrastructure, was built by slave labor; I was shocked when I learned that even the White House was built by slaves.

I remember Dr. King’s arrest in April of 1963 and the publication of his famous letter from the Birmingham jail, as well as the Children’s Crusade in May—the water hoses and snarling police dogs tearing at the legs of children in Kelly Ingram Park downtown. I remember George Wallace’s defiant “stand in the schoolhouse door” in Tuscaloosa in June. I remember the November 22 assassination of President John F. Kennedy, which was announced over the intercom at Brooke Hill while I sat in Mrs. Gage’s history class; I remember hearing jubilant students cheering in the halls when they heard that the President had been shot, and I remember Mrs. Gage expressing angry disappointment at such behavior. I remember the sorrow in the days that followed, my father’s intractable grief, the televised footage of Jackie Kennedy in a black dress and black veil half-hiding her stricken face, the heavy silence of the funeral procession, the coffin draped in the American flag.

Most of all, I remember the September 15, 1963 bombing of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church, which killed four little girls and cast a pall of heartbreak and anguish over the entire city for weeks; I remember the images of blown-apart bricks and debris in the rubble, the broken stained glass with the face of Jesus blown away, the ambulances, the victims on gurneys, the weeping parents, the coffins draped in flowers, and the unforgettable photo of the fifth little girl, Sarah Collins Rudolph, blinded in one eye by the bomb, lying helpless in her hospital bed with patches over both eyes.

Birth of Bending the Arc

Much of what I know now about all of these events, as well as the surrounding culture and the shameful history, didn’t really sink in until more than half a century later, when I became involved in a racial-justice-related project inspired by the stories of some of the older members of the Unitarian Universalist Church of Birmingham (UUCB).

In March of 2015, Virginia Volker, a long-time social-justice activist and fellow member of UUCB, asked me and two of my colleagues to photograph the Unitarian pilgrimage to Selma to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the 1965 Selma marches. The three of us spent a full weekend capturing images of Unitarians from across the country, many of whom had participated in the 1965 marches and were returning to Alabama to commemorate “Bloody Sunday” with their colleagues. As we moved among the group, we heard extraordinary stories of courage, trauma, and tragedy, including details about the murders of the three martyrs: Jimmie Lee Jackson, an African American whose death was the trigger for the Selma marches, and two white Unitarians, Rev. James Reeb and Viola Liuzzo.

We were also amazed to hear many little-known stories about members of our own Unitarian congregation in Birmingham, who were among the few white allies who fought alongside African Americans for racial justice in Birmingham during the 1960s. We learned that our church had opened its doors to people of all races when segregation was mandated by law in Alabama … that, despite bomb threats, mixed-race events were held at the church and African American ministers were welcomed as guest speakers in our pulpit… that our members participated in lunch-counter sit-ins, boycotts, and protests… that one member denounced Bull Connor to his face at a public event… that several members were part of a mixed-race group of students who attempted to integrate the Alabama State Fair and were beaten by the Klan for daring to do so… that half of the 72 people who participated in the Concerned White Citizens voting rights march in Selma (the day before Bloody Sunday) were members of our congregation… and that the church hosted, fed, lodged and transported some 300 people from across the country to the final Selma voting rights march.

After hearing these and many other stories of the moral courage of Birmingham Unitarian activists, it became clear that their stories were in danger of being lost, because all of them were now in their 70s, 80s, and 90s; so I began interviewing them, with the goal of producing a short documentary film.

Almost immediately, the “whiteness” of this project—all-white interviewees and a white producer—created discomfort; I realized that it would be impossible to tell any story about the Civil Rights Movement without African American voices. So I began interviewing members of the Carlton Reese Memorial Unity Choir, which was founded in 1959 by Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth as the musical voice of the Birmingham movement; the choir sang at the mass meetings during the early 1960s, and today the older members continue to tell their stories about growing up in the city during segregation.

Each of these interviews—with the Unitarians and the Unity Choir members—led to more interviews, and by 2018, my colleague David Brower and I had captured more than 50 full-length life stories of foot soldiers and activists in the Birmingham movement. At that point, realizing the treasure of on-camera stories we had collected, we began to expand our vision of the project; now, in 2022, we’ve completed almost 100 interviews and are in the process of producing a documentary miniseries titled Bending the Arc. We released the first of the Bending the Arc films (on voting rights) in October 2020 and plan to release the next film in the series later this year.

A Revelatory Journey

The seven-year (and counting) journey of producing Bending the Arc has been one of the most meaningful and revelatory experiences of my life. Prior to beginning the project, I had thought of myself as “enlightened,” having transcended racism through reason and cultivating empathy for all people. But after hearing the stories of the African Americans we interviewed, I realized how little I knew and, more strikingly, how little I really understood—not only about what African Americans and their ancestors had been through, but also about my own blind spots of white privilege and unconscious bias. I became more and more uncomfortable about my role, as a white woman, in producing and directing Bending the Arc; many times, feeling like an impostor, I faltered in my resolve to continue the project.

But my original impulse—to capture stories that illustrate the human capacity to see beyond one’s own “kind” and to fight for the rights of all people—still feels imperative, especially as the divide in our country has grown deeper and the need for healing more critical. So my commitment to the project remains strong.

I guess I’ve also come to understand that we really are “all in this together”—that injustice anywhere is injustice everywhere, affecting us all and calling us all to action. I truly believe that racism diminishes and damages us all; it causes horrific suffering for the victims, and it deeply corrupts the souls of the perpetrators, leaving legacies of guilt and shame. All of this evil impacts the lives of descendants—of both victims and perpetrators—for generations. So it is up to all of us to do what we can to illuminate injustices and advance the rights of all people. Dr. King expressed it best: “The bell of man’s inhumanity to man does not toll for any one man; it tolls for you, for me, for all of us.”

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Pam Powell
Virginia Volker