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.
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."
The elder Long took his children to his hotel office and began a futile attempt to call home and let their mother know they were OK. "The lobby of the motel was chaos," Long recalls. "People were on the phones, trying to make calls. Dad finally got in touch with my grandmother and asked that she go over to our house and tell my mother we weren't hurt."
Outside, the streets were filling with angered residents forming an impromptu demonstration that would evolve into a full-blown riot. It wasn't until later in the day that the Long family heard a radio report announcing the deaths of the four children. The devastating news hit close to home. Cynthia Wesley, also a clarinet player, had sat next to Dale in the youth orchestra. Carol Robinson's mother had grown up with Dale's mother. The McNairs were close friends of the Long family. Often, they had given Addie Mae Collins a ride home from church.
And suddenly they were gone, victims of a hatred none was old enough to understand.
Long remembers accompanying his mother as she delivered food to the homes of the grieving parents the following day, then, along with 8,000 others, attending the funerals at which the Reverend Martin Luther King delivered moving eulogies.
"I grew up a lot in those days after the bombing, realizing how precious and tenuous life really was," says Long, now the father of two daughters. Two weeks later, he recalls, he made the walk down the aisle of the church to profess his faith.
And several years later, the clarinet rescued from that dust and smoke-filled church library would provide Long an escape from his troubled birthplace. Offered a band scholarship to Houston's Texas Southern University after graduating from high school, he distanced himself from the taunts that blacks still heard on Birmingham streets, the parading Klansmen waving Confederate flags and the frustration that lingered over the fact no one had been called to answer for the deaths of his friends.
After earning a degree in industrial technology, he went to work for McDonnell-Douglas' space shuttle program at NASA, then later moved to the Dallas area to work for Texas Instruments. Today, in addition to working for the city of Dallas, he busies himself with community volunteer activities. In 1989 he received the National Big Brother of the Year Award. "What I've tried to do," he explains, "is give something of myself that might fill the void left by those little girls. I've attempted to do some of the things they weren't able to."
And while Texas is now home, Long regularly returns to Birmingham to visit his mother and brother, attend class reunions and to remember. When Tom Blanton, one of the men finally indicted for the crime, was tried, Dale Long was in the courtroom to hear the guilty verdict. He had planned on attending the final days of the Cherry trial, but it ended before most had expected.
"When I go home," he says, "one of the first places I visit is the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church. I've been there hundreds of times, but the next time I'm there, I'll go again. It's a place I'll be drawn to for the rest of my life."
With Klansmen Robert Chambliss, Herman Cash, Blanton and Cherry finally publicly acknowledged as the men responsible for the bombing, how does he feel about the event that has so long been a part of his life? "We've all come a long way since those days," he acknowledges, "African-Americans and Anglos alike.
"What the judicial system has finally done is provide the lesson that one can't ever escape punishment for that kind of evil act." That alone, he acknowledges, is an important signal of progress from which a new generation will benefit.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you'll never miss Observer's biggest stories.