Last week, I was with two colleagues on Piedmont Avenue in Oakland discussing my book, 1963: The Year of Hope and Hostility, when a very distinguished looking gentleman approached us.
He said, "Excuse me for interrupting, but I heard Birmingham and it peaked my interest." He told us that he grew up just outside of the Magic City.
I asked, "When were you there?"
"Quite some time ago, 1930," he said.
I asked, "What do you remember about Birmingham?" He proceeded to slowly, but firmly place his thumb and index finger over his left wrist, while holding it, he said, "I remember my mother holding my wrist like this so I wouldn't go in the forbidden area on the bus."
Though we were enjoying a near perfect day in Oakland, hearing the name Birmingham not only peaked his interest but also placed him back on the Jim Crow bus system in Alabama.
With the combination of that simple statement and gesture, he took us back some 75 years to the Birmingham where segregation was normative, and a mother's fear that could have resulted in the mere innocence of a child leading to an unthinkable outcome.
He shared with us how segregation took its toll economically with blacks in Birmingham. At one time, it was second only to Pittsburgh as the largest steel producer in the country.
"Blacks were given the most dangerous jobs for which they were paid less than their white counterparts," he shared. Adding, "And it was that way until the war started in 1941."
He was obviously referring to the Second World War, but the reason for the equitable pay was not as apparent. In 1941, labor organizer, A. Phillip Randolph proposed a March on Washington to protest racial discrimination in war industries, and end to segregation, access to defense employment, the proposal of an anti-lynching law, and the desegregation of the armed forces.
The march was cancelled after President Franklin Roosevelt issued Executive Order 8802, prohibiting racial discrimination in the national defense industry. By 1963, the social and economic conditions for blacks would necessitate the realization of Randolph's dream to have a march on Washington.
It would be a march that the distinguished gentleman from Birmingham would attend sitting underneath the statue of Lincoln as his wife, without the assistance of a smartphone, who arrived later found him through the sea of 250,000 people.
It was a 10-minute conversation that hit many of the touchstones of American history in the first half of the 20th century. Before he left I gave him a signed copy of my book.
My colleagues and I expressed what an honor it was to speak with him. He thanked us, returned to his table, helped his wife of 62 years, and departed.
Hearing Birmingham did more than peak the distinguished gentleman's interest; it unleashed the commonality that we collectively share. America is a nation of stories.
It is a country formed on the notion of equality and the unalienable rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Those beliefs led to an improbable victory in a revolutionary war of attrition against the most powerful military known to humankind at that time.
We struggle with the tension between falsely believing a single narrative that comprises the American experiment and the reality that the mosaic of stories, joyous and tragic, encompasses our greatness.
The distinguished gentleman's closing words to us were, "But I survived Birmingham."
He did more than survive; he gave us a story that once again bears witness to a single truth that narratives and counter narratives cannot dissuade. As Martin Luther King opined: "We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality tied to a single garment of destiny."