I shall once again quote a long passage from The Race Beat, by Gene Roberts and Hank Klibanoff. This time the quote is of a quote that they quoted. It is a column written by Gene Patterson, then the Editor of the Atlanta Constitution, after four little girls were killed in the bombing of a Birmingham church in mid September, 1963. The bombing occurred in the midst of a long run of violence by white Southerners. The violence occurred in good part because the “respectable” people of the South let it happen -- and at times encouraged it, either tacitly or more openly.
Patterson’s column was so powerful and moving that, after it was published, an Atlanta CBS station filmed him reading it and used the whole piece. Walter Cronkite likewise ran the whole piece on national television on CBS. Patterson, who normally would get no more than 20 letters about a column, received 1,200 about this one.
My purpose in “running” Patterson’s nearly 44 year old column is this: If you substitute the words “United States” for the word “South,” the word “American” for the word “Southerner,” the name “Iraq” for the name “Birmingham,” and make some other necessary verbal substitutions, and if you remember that Howard Zinn has very rightly called our leaders thugs in suits -- I would place the emphasis on the word “thugs” and would include lots of Senators and Representatives -- then what Patterson wrote is in many unfortunate respects as applicable to the entire United States today as it was to the South in 1963.
Here is what Patterson wrote:
“A Negro mother wept in the street Sunday morning in front of a Baptist Church in
Birmingham. In her hand she held a shoe, one shoe, from the foot of her dead child.
We hold that shoe with her.
Every one of us in the white South holds that small shoe in his hand.
It is too late to blame the sick criminals who handled the dynamite. The FBI and the
police can deal with that kind. The charge against them is simple. They killed four
Only we can trace the truth, Southerner -- you and I. We broke those children’s bodies.
We watched the stage set without staying it. We listened to the prologue unbestirred.
We saw the curtain opening with disinterest. We have heard the play.
We -- who go on electing politicians who heat the kettles of hate.
We -- who raise no hand to silence the mean and little men who have their nigger jokes.
We -- who stand aside in imagined rectitude and let the mad dogs that run in every
society slide their leashes from our hand, and spring.
We -- the heirs of a proud South, who protest its worth and demand it recognition --
we are the ones who have ducked the difficult, skirted the uncomfortable, caviled at
the challenge, resented the necessary, rationalized the unacceptable, and created the
day surely when these children would die.
This is no time to load our anguish onto the murderous scapegoat who set the cap in
dynamite of our own manufacture.
He didn’t know any better.
Somewhere in the dim and fevered recess of an evil mind he feels right now that he
has been a hero. He is only guilty of murder. He thinks he has pleased us.
We of the white South who know better are the ones who must take a harsher judgment.
We, who know better, created a climate for child-killing by those who don’t.
We hold that shoe in our hand, Southerner. We hold that shoe in our hand, Southerner.
Let us see it straight, and look at the blood on it. Let us compare it with the unworthy
speeches of Southern public men who have traduced the Negro; match it with the
spectacle of shrilling children whose parents and teachers turned them free to spit
epithets at small huddles of Negro school children for a week before this Sunday in
Birmingham; hold up the shoe and look beyond it to the state house in Montgomery
where the official attitudes of Alabama have been spoken in heat and anger.
Let us not lay the blame on some brutal fool who didn’t know any better.
We know better. We created the day. We bear the judgment. May God have mercy on
the poor South that has so been led. May what has happened hasten the day when the
good South, which does live and has great being, will rise to this challenge of racial
understanding and common humanity, and in the full power of its unasserted courage,
The Sunday school play at Birmingham is ended. With a weeping Negro mother, we stand
in the bitter smoke and hold a shoe. If our South is ever to be what we wish it to be, we
will plant a flower of nobler resolve for the South now upon these four small graves that
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