I grew up in Birmingham in the early 1960s during the Civil Rights Movement, though it is important to remember that it wasn’t called that then. I was roughly the same age as the four little girls killed in the infamous Sixteenth Street Church bombing. I watched the aftermath on teevee in my safe and secure house in the burbs same as some kid from New York or California. I was too busy growing up, going to school, and playing ball to pay attention to what had gone on in Birmingham before September 15, 1963, but this bombing certainly got my attention.
Spring of ’63 had seen the equally infamous demonstrations in downtown Birmingham featuring police dogs and fire hoses. The main effect of these demonstrations upon myself, sibs, and friends was that our parents no longer would allow us to go downtown Saturday mornings to the movies shown at local theaters such as the Melba, Empire, Ritz, Strand, and of course the grand ole Alabama, Showplace of the South. We kids sure hoped the adults would get this ‘civil rights’ business settled soon so we could get back to the movies. Heck, it didn’t seem that hard to me. In both school and church we were taught that all people were equal. Seemed a no-brainer. The Birmingham newspapers didn’t make a big deal of it. Doing research years later, I was astounded to discover that many of the historic demonstrations hadn’t even made the front page, taking a back seat to the seemingly more important big picture of the Red Menace. The Cuban missile crisis had taken the world to the nuclear brink several months earlier, October 1962.
Of course Birmingham was strictly segregated then. The only black person I had direct contact with was my mother’s maid, who came once a week, via the city bus. It must have been truly a shadow world in which these maids lived and worked, not that I remember giving it much thought. Too busy growing up.
The main contact I had with black culture came through the radio. A couple of years earlier I had discovered rock & roll and its forerunner, rhythm & blues. The white AM stations in B’ham were pretty cool back then, spinning lotsa Sam & Dave, Otis & James, Motown & Stax/Volt, in between records by white artists. It didn’t take long to realize that most of my favorite hits were by blacks. But there seemed to exist a fuzzy cut-off point where the white stations wouldn’t play records that sounded too ‘black.’ They would play John Lee Hooker but not Muddy Waters or Howlin’ Wolf. They would play Chuck & Bo but not Elmore James. They censored Hank Ballard when he sang the Annie series. To hear this stuff we had to tune in to the black stations, WJLD and WENN. Here I was transported to an entirely new world, featuring classic R&B disc jockeys–all with poetic nicknames–Shelley the Playboy Stewart, Tall Paul White, Wee Willie McKinstry, Sam Double O Moore. These guys rocked my early teenage world, right in the midst of the historic civil rights’ strife. I didn’t know then that the jocks were also playing an important part in the demonstrations, by secret code transmitting demonstration times and places to their foot-soldier listeners.
There was so much I neither knew nor understood. Children are raised to accept, not to question. But rock & roll seethed with rebellion, even in original AM days, and through it I was learning to question. When my dad drove us on family vacations to Missouri and we passed through Mississippi and Tennessee I questioned the billboards we would see depicting ‘Martin Luther King in Communist Training School.’ When we’d get stopped by cops in St. Louis for no reason, I questioned why (Alabama license plates). Back in Birmingham, when all of a sudden we left our church to begin attending another, I questioned why. I was told that the new one was ‘closer’ to our home, but I later learned that the pastor of the first had said he would integrate, thus was voted out by the congregation. Ergo my folks left that church in the lurch and found another. My folks were border staters from Missouri, not into the Old South values of Big Seg.
Indeed, it was the religious aspect of the civil rights struggle that impressed me. If there really was a God then surely he was on the side of the blacks, who had righteousness in spades (har! a pun- pardon the racism). As the great Flip would say, “the devil made me do it!” Speaking of which, back to the so-called devil’s music of rock & roll in which, personally, I was more interested than in going to church.
At Homewood Junior High, located on the south slope of Red Mountain, our coaches used to make us run a trail up the side of the mountain after school during springtime, to keep us in shape for football season. The trail led to the radio station signal towers located atop the mountain, and one day me and some buddies ran up there and were pleasantly surprised to literally run right into the WJLD tower, a bit farther down from the white station towers. We tiptoed up to the small shack at the base of the tower and could hear the station’s music playing from a small speaker. We wanted to knock on the door but were afraid. We wondered if this might be the actual studio. I was excited that it could be…that we might get to see Shelley the Playboy or one of the other deejays in action.
BOOM! came a voice. “What chu all boys doin’ here?”
Seemingly out of nowhere this huge guy appeared behind us, almost like he was coming out of the woods. “We…uh…we were out running the trail, Sir…and we heard the music…”
“You boys like this music?”
That’s all of the conversation I can remember. Somehow we found our voices and were able to explain to the man that we were R&B fans and listened to the station sometimes. He seemed to get a kick out of this and introduced himself as an employee of the station, though not a deejay. But he offered to call the station and let us talk to the on-air jock, Sam Double O Moore.
“Really? We can talk to him?”
“You bet. It’s a few minutes after three o’clock, school check-in time.
Just tell him where you go to school and he’ll announce it on air…”
We were all nervous, but my friend Garnett had the balls to do it, so he did the talking. When Mr. Moore asked if Homewood had a good football team, Garnett said “sure, we were number one in the county last year!”
“Ah, but that’s cuz you don’t play the black schools,” said Sam, “iffin’ you did you’d get that little ole number one knocked upside yo head…”
Which in time proved to be true…but that’s another story.
We couldn’t stay too long, as our coaches kept track, and would punish us for goofing off if we weren’t back by a certain time. So down the mountain we trekked that afternoon, happy as pigs in a poke that we had discovered the WJLD signal tower. It made us love the music even more, and we felt like real cool cats. It was 1964 and the British Invasion was in full-tilt boogie, with the Rolling Stones rumored to be bringing their American blues-based rock & roll to Birmingham on a fall tour of the States. If so, Garnett and I certainly would make the scene. We would have to get one of our parents to drive us, as we were still a couple of long years away from getting a driver’s license, the second-most ultimate dream of a teenager (one guess as to the first).
When that glorious day came (the drivers’ license, not the other) we could start driving ourselves downtown to the City (later Boutwell) Auditorium to see the Soul Review Shows we heard advertised on WJLD and WENN, starring Otis Redding & the Barkays, James Brown & the Famous Flames, the Wicked Pickett, Smokey & the Miracles, and whoever else might be on the bill. I had heard about these shows and had seen the posters but in ’64 I was still a couple of years away from attending one.
They are germane to this story though, so pardon me if I skip ahead and get right to it. I got my driver’s license in 1966 as a sophomore in high school and began attending the soul reviews. Usually there would be a small handful of white teenagers in attendance, but the audiences were 99% black. We never had any trouble. Indeed, the blacks seemed tickled to see us, amazed that we liked their music. Some even offered us shots of whiskey from pocket flasks. The shows themselves were nothing short of amazing, often six or seven acts on the bill- the action leading up to the headliners a veritable crescendo of rhythm & blues energy.
Our own little personal histories wouldn’t make news, of course. Hell, we might have been just a bunch of teenaged white boys, but at least we had already figured out what we wanted to be when we grew up- we wanted to be Soul Men!
“Hold on, I’m Comin’…”
That was Birmingham, just a few short years after the historic demonstrations, when the whole world was watching…all that other stuff.
Craig Legg lives and writes in Hooverville, Alabama, where he is writer-in-residence at his house.