Bearing Witness

Dallas civil servant Dale Long was there the day a bomb changed the civil rights landscape forever

For the 11-year-old black boy growing up in Birmingham, Alabama, in the '60s, the steel industry mecca he called home offered a never-ending series of confusing, often humiliating, lessons. Public drinking fountains and rest rooms were marked for "white" and "colored"; blacks were not welcome to sit among whites in restaurants or classrooms. Labeled the most racially divided city in the nation, it teemed with demonstrations and violence during the civil rights movement.

"I was 7, maybe 8," says Garland resident Dale Long, "when I begged my father to take me to see a movie called The Shaggy Dog and had to enter the downtown Melba Theater through an alley stairway that led to the balcony where black folks had to sit." Today, it isn't the story line of the Disney classic that stands out in the memory of the 50-year-old public information officer for the Dallas Public Works and Transportation Department. "The place was filthy," he recalls. "I was embarrassed and sorry I had talked my dad into taking me."

It was the last time he ever asked such a favor.

Dale Long was in the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church when "the air was filled with dust and the smell of dynamite."
Mark Graham
Dale Long was in the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church when "the air was filled with dust and the smell of dynamite."
The dynamite blast of September 15, 1963, claimed the lives of four little girls--and forever changed Dale Long, pictured above in his 1961-1962 school photo.
AP/Wide World
The dynamite blast of September 15, 1963, claimed the lives of four little girls--and forever changed Dale Long, pictured above in his 1961-1962 school photo.

Back then, he says, the social life of many of the city's blacks, young and old, revolved around the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church on the edge of downtown Birmingham. "There was something going on there seven days a week; potluck dinners, plays, music, activities for the kids." He can still remember the excitement of a long-ago Emancipation Day celebration when baseball immortal Jackie Robinson, the first black player welcomed into the major leagues, came to speak to the congregation. "It was a wonderful place where everyone felt at home, safe."

That changed on the Sunday morning of September 15, 1963, when an exploding package of dynamite, put in place the night before by Ku Klux Klan members, killed four girls who, like Long, had been scheduled to participate in a youth service. In the rubble of a church basement rest room lay the bodies of Cynthia Wesley, Carole Robertson and Addie Mae Collins, all 14, and 11-year-old Denise McNair. Twenty others were injured.

Almost four decades have passed since that pivotal moment in the civil rights struggle, yet for Long the event has rarely been far from mind. In recent days, with the long-delayed and highly publicized conviction of aging Texas resident Bobby Frank Cherry for his role in the bombing ("Echoes of Hate," June 20), the memories have again come rushing back:

That morning, he remembers, his mother, a schoolteacher, had dropped him and his younger brother Kenneth off at the church before returning home to complete preparation of a class project she was to present to her students the following morning. Long's father, manager of the nearby A.G. Gaston Hotel, had hoped to attend and hear his son play his clarinet in the church orchestra but had been called in to work at the last minute.

"Sunday school had ended," he says, "and several of us were sitting in the [basement] library, talking about school starting and what kind of football team Parker High was going to have." Then there came the rattling percussion that originated just down the hallway. "The room shook, and I saw lightbulbs explode. This huge bookshelf began rocking. Then everything went dark, and the air was filled with dust and the smell of the dynamite." He could hear adult screams from rooms above.

"We had no idea what had happened," he remembers, "but everyone started running, shoving, trying to find their way out of the church." Following a faint beam of light in a nearby stairwell, Long made his way to a side entrance. Even as he did so he could hear the whine of sirens in the distance.

"I got to the door, and this police officer was standing there. To this day I wonder how he got there so quickly. As I tried to make my way out, he put out his arms and said, 'Nigger, get back in there.' I just ducked under his arm and kept running."

On the street in front of the church he saw people crying. Many were bleeding, cut by flying shards of glass. Others were clearly suffering from shock. And as he surveyed the crowd he did not see his 9-year-old brother. "I ran back into the church, down to the room where he was supposed to be, and couldn't find him," Long says. On the way back out he detoured into the basement library long enough to pick up his clarinet.

"When I got outside I saw several kids standing with a lady who was a good friend of my grandmother. She waved at me and pointed to Ken, who was with her, crying."

It was only minutes later when Long saw his father running down the sidewalk toward the church. "I'd never seen my father run before," he says, "nor do I remember him ever being quite as demonstrative as he was that day. He got to where we were and hugged us, repeatedly asking if we were OK. He even made my brother take off his shirt so he could make sure he wasn't bleeding anywhere."

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