By Carl Carter
The one-gallon glass bottles of water were lined up across the wall of our basement, below a small window that looked out at ground level. They had once held Clorox and were covered in dust. My parents had placed them there so that we would have something to drink if the nuclear missiles from Russia or Cuba hit.
There may have been some cans of food, but I don’t remember them. My child’s mind (I was only seven or eight) raced with questions nobody wanted to answer. Why don’t we just go to the school? It was literally next door, less than 150 yards away, and it had a fallout shelter.
We knew what fallout was, vaguely. After the bombs hit, there would be dust and radiation that would make us sick. We would break out and our skin would slide off our arms, and we would soon die.
My friends told me they, too, had bottles of water stored in their basements. At school, we would have “duck-and-cover” drills when a siren went off and we walked single file to the first floor and put our hands behind our heads. I could see windows and doors from where I was ducked and covered, and I tried to imagine how the thin glass would keep out the radiation, and exactly how my little arms would protect me from the bombs. There was a big crack in the doorway. Wouldn’t the radiation seep in there?
Not far away, there were other schools where kids were doing exactly the same thing, but one thing was different. They and their teachers were black. It was illegal for them to attend Minnie Holman Elementary, or Comer, or Gibson, or any other “white” school. Red lines on maps dictated where they could live. Presumably, they had their own dusty Clorox bottles of water stored away.
We rarely saw each other, unless it was downtown or on a city bus. My father routed the buses, primarily on an east-west trajectory, up and down First Avenue North and other roads that ran the length of the city. Every bus had a clear white line, and if you were black, you had to sit behind that line. If you were white, you stayed in front of it not only because of the law, but because heaven only knew what horrible things went on in the back of the bus. We imagined constant knifings and fights, and felt certain we might be killed if we went back there.
Because of his role as the bus scheduler, Dad got regular phone calls from the infamous commissioner, Bull Connor, who obsessed on keeping black and white from ever being in the same place at the same time.
Not that I ever saw any of that. That long seat in the back looked to me like a fun place to be. But no matter. Mother kept my sisters and me safely in the front. When we went shopping downtown, there were “White” and “Colored” signs everywhere — especially on water fountains, restrooms and doors. In theaters, blacks had to enter by their own doors and sit in their own sections, usually in the very back of the room. In restaurants — at least the ones where we ate — they weren’t allowed at all.
Whether black or white, we lived in fear. At home, it was fear of the Russians. In shops, and on buses and sidewalks, it was fear of each other, and a great deal of work went into keeping that fear stoked. Somewhere in Woodlawn, mere blocks from my home, was the local KKK chapter, to which my grandfather belonged. Nobody ever admitted James T. Harwell had robes in the closet, but it finally came out when his son (my uncle) Jack pulled them down one day while playing in the home. We certainly never heard what went on in those meetings, but apparently it wasn’t extreme enough for some members, who splintered off join others and form the Cahaba Boys, where the plans were hatched to bomb Sixteenth Street Baptist Church, which resulted in the deaths of four little girls.
I’ve been haunted for years by the question of whether my grandfather knew the bombers. I guess we’ll never know for sure.
Over the years, some of the lines keeping black and white separate began to fade. It was 1969 before I had a handful of black classmates. The world didn’t end.
In his final hours of life at East End Memorial Hospital, my grandfather became delusional, grabbed a pen from an orderly and ran up and down the halls stabbing black employees in the backside with it. Whether it was fear, hate or some mix of the two, nobody will ever know. They had to sedate him and strap him to his bed.
While all this was happening, I was worshipping each week in an all-white church that posted guards to keep black people from worshipping with us — or, as my dad preferred to call it, making trouble.
Fear kept them out. Fear kept us in and sent our wealthier friends to the all-white southern suburbs of Mountain Brook, Homewood and Vestavia.
For years, starting in the late 1980s, I lived in Hoover next door to a career policeman and FBI agent, who happened to be black. We talked about the frequency of police shootings of black men. He blamed much of it on fear. A scared black man makes a sudden move interpreted by a scared cop as an effort to reach for a gun. Boom.
I think in many cases, the bullet is just the agent of death. The real cause is fear.
My vantage point of the civil rights struggle in the 1960s changed me forever. It’s the reason I have refused for years to vote for anybody who wants to make me afraid.
That doesn’t mean I am free of fear. There are very real dangers in the world around us. So we lock our doors and buy insurance and install security systems.
The problem isn’t fear per se, but those who use it to control us. Those who paint pictures of inner-city chaos, killers and drug dealers pouring across our borders, people of different religions, or people who love differently, for the purpose of getting our votes. It might surprise you that this is an attitude I inherited from my father, who felt deeply that race mixing was dangerous and yet took pride in refusing to ever vote for George Wallace.
As I write this, we are just months from very important elections. I don’t know who will get my vote yet, but I will be looking for those who invite me to be better, and believe in a better future. This is why nobody who preaches fear will ever get my vote.