Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Martin Luther King and Mrs. Robertson

When any of us move from one place to another we take with us memories that don’t always fit into a suitcase. As we come to remember Dr. King on his birthday, I recall a Birmingham memory that moves me to this day. I left Birmingham one morning on an airplane that would carry me North.  As the plane took off I began to talk to my seatmate. She was a distinguished-looking black lady from Birmingham. I asked her if she might be a member of the Sixteenth Street Church--I was to preach there soon. She told me she used to be a member of that church. I asked her if she was there when the church was bombed. And she said: “My daughter was killed in that bombing... Her name was Carole with an "e". Carole Robertson was fourteen years old, a clarinet player, lover of fancy dresses, in the 9th grade. Her mother told me that she was getting ready for church that morning when she heard the noise that would change her life forever. Her husband came home with the saddest of news: Their church had been bombed--Carole was dead.

Since that chance meeting on a plane our paths crisscrossed several times. She promised to speak in our church on Black History Sunday but her health would not permit. Through the years we talked from time to time on the phone. I would call her and sometimes she would call me.

I learned a great deal about her. She was born in Birmingham over ninety years before. Her father, John Anderson was a Postman and dealt in insurance and real estate. Her mother founded the first PTA Council for African Americans in the city. Her husband served as Principal of the Martin Elementary School.

When Thomas Blanton was arrested and charged as one of those who did the bombing, they wheeled her into the courtroom that day and she testified in the trial. “Was it hard to sit there in the courtroom and to speak?”  “No,” she said, “It was what I had to do”. She told those in the courtroom that her daughter would have been 52 years old the day she testified.

What kept her going? I asked her. “Hope, I think. That one day things will be right, not just the bombing, many things. You never know how justice is going to work its way out. But Blanton and the others”, she said, “will have to pay whether there is a conviction or not.”

Mrs. Robinson was featured several times in Spike Lee's film, Four Little Girls. The movie told the world the story of what happened that sad day in Birmingham when the Sixteenth Street Church was bombed. As the movie was coming to a close, Spike Lee asked Mrs. Robinson about what this whole terrible event did to her. I will never forget how movingly she spoke as the cameras captured her face. “I have worked very hard not to feel anger and hatred. I had to keep my spirits up so I could help my husband's spirits up and the folks around me. We had good friends and family who gave us a lot of support. But”, and her voice was colored with emotion, “ you have to work with it and pray...Gradually,” she said,” healing came about because hating people would not do me good and it would do me more harm than it would them”. She continued to speak: “I think I conquered it but every once in a while it comes out, not the hatred but anger...It comes out in different ways. I've tried to put all that behind me and go on and live. My husband is gone, three brothers, my sisters and parents are gone. I still have my son and daughter and three grandchildren and five great-grandchildren. So I have something to be thankful for after all.”

She called me one day and said, “Guess what? I just got back from the Academy Awards. Spike invited me to come and sit with him—it was wonderful. We had the best time.” And then she laughed with that deep down wonderful chuckle she had.

I called her one day and asked her if I could write a Mother’s Day piece on her for the The Birmingham News. She reluctantly agreed. She called me that Sunday afternoon after the story had run and thanked me for writing. She said, “Dr. Lovette, it was wonderful even if it was about me.”

Not long after that she died. But meeting her and that friendship has been one of the great blessings of my life. On this day when we remember the great King I remember another great one. The mother of one of the four little girls that was killed that sad Sunday morning in Birmingham. Maybe the old book is right: “Weeping may last through the night…but joy comes in the morning.”

(This stained glass window was designed for the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham after the bombing.  The children of Wales were so distressed over this terrible tragedy that they began to take up money. They were joined by the adults in that country. Thousands of their citizens participated in this project. Welch artist John Petts was selected as the Stained Glass artist to design this  window. It can be found in the front of the church facing South. It shows a black Jesus with his hands outstretched and is a powerful symbol.)

1 comment:

  1. Roger, you may or may not remember me, but you were my pastor at Faith from 1969-1972 while I was a student at Georgetown. I've now been in full-time ministry for over 30 years, and for the past year have been the pastor of the Columbia Baptist Fellowship in Columbia, MD, a multi-racial congregation that meets in an inter-faith center--a building much like Faith was in those days. Such stories as this remind me of the blessing it is to serve a mostly-black congregation in 2013. You have long been a role-model for me in many ways, and I pray that your journey on this side may yet be long and blessed. Dave Stancil