Remembering the Birmingham Church Bombing

Today is the anniversary of the 16th St Church bombing. In light of all the terrorism in the world, is it still relevant to remember this event? Many more than 4 young girls have been killed in school massacres, movie theaters, the Twin Towers. What about that particular bomb planted in the dead of night at a black church in 1963 makes us pause in our busy days . . . and remember?

I’m not sure I can answer this fully. I do know that it is important to remember the awful cost of hate in any form it manifests and that remembering one incident does not mean forgetting others. But that said, this bombing symbolized the cost of hatred in a way that brought to light how it had festered in our midst for so long and made us face that as a nation, opening a path for real change.

A chance encounter made me think about this:

I’m in beautiful Charleston, SC and stop at a shoe store. Great shoes in this city! Am wearing a hot pink US Marine tee shirt (yes, really) that matches my toenails. An African American sales lady approaches and, noting my tee shirt, tells me about all of her many family members who are in the armed forces, though she stayed home to raise her children. As we chat, she asks where I’m from.

“Birmingham, Alabama,” I say.

“Oh my father went to Birmingham a few years ago,” she says. “My brother’s school also went.”

I give her my “author” postcard, and she wrinkles her forehead. “You’re T.K. Thorne?”

I nod. This is a fun part for me, as people seem astonished at meeting an author. I get the same reaction when they find out this little silver-haired lady (me) was once a police officer.

But she surprises me when she says, “I know your name!”

Click image for more info on book

Sometimes people think they’ve heard of you, so I didn’t think much about it, but she pointed to LAST CHANCE FOR JUSTICE on my card.

“You wrote this book?

“I did.”

“My father went to B’ham for the 50th anniversary and bought two copies of this book! The author was signing them at the 16th Street Church.”

In fact, we had launched the book at the church.

T.K. with investigators Ben Herren and Bill Fleming at 16th Street Church 2013

We chat a bit more and then she looks at me and says, “I feel like crying. Thank you for writing this book.”

I smile.

“No, THANK YOU for writing this book.”

She repeats this twice more before what she is really saying sinks in, and then I feel like crying too. I almost didn’t write this book. There were lots of reasons not to, but I am so thankful that I did. The words “honor” and “privilege” sometimes get bantered about, but at this moment, they really hit me. It was an honor and a privilege, and I will be grateful for having told this story and written this book for the rest of my life.

Save

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

The Eye of The Beholder

Some things have confused me for a long time, such as why flowers are beautiful and spiders are not. What is beauty anyway? And is there any importance in asking or answering that question?

Obviously, there are some people who find spiders beautiful (yes, really), so the quality is not inherent in the object. I lost my father recently after a long illness and was thinking about my loss while walking to the mailbox. A crop of slender blue wildflowers on the road’s edge, caught my eye, their beauty an instantaneous salve to my grief.

How? Why?

Somewhere in the heart of a forest, an exquisite orchid is blooming, and no one is there to see it. Is it beautiful? No. Beauty is, indeed, in the eye of the beholder. Without the eye, it does not exist. The orchid exists, of course, but it is not “beauty” to the creatures that see or smell it, even those insects that it is meant to attract. If no human notices the wildflowers and deems them beautiful, they are just wildflowers.

A sense of responsibility followed this thought. Nature is harsh, relentless change. It is “eat and be eaten.” In our stellar neighborhood, two galaxies are colliding, gravitational forces ripping apart whatever life may have painstakingly evolved. Our own galaxy is destined to collide with another, our sun to die, our loved ones, ourselves.

We may learn that whales or elephants or other animals share our awareness of mortality, but, as far as we know now, people are the only creatures to seek meaning to life, perhaps because of that awareness. It is a burden. It is a privilege. In this chaos of change we call life, humans seek meaning, personal meaning.

The concept of beauty may be one of the unique perceptual structures of the human brain. Why did it evolve? Of what evolutionary value is it? Is it just that spiders pose a threat, so we instinctively recoil from them, while flowers pose no threat and may signal a source of food? Perhaps, but some people truly find spiders fascinating and beautiful. There are spider enthusiast groups. Honest.

Perhaps the concept of beauty is just an odd byproduct of the complexity of our minds, our thought processes. Or perhaps not. Perhaps it came into being to give us something we crave—meaning. I have occasionally been told that my book, Noah’s Wife, was “beautifully written.” This puzzled me. It is written in tight third person from the perspective of a young woman with what we now call Asperger’s Syndrome. She sees the world in literal terms. Looking at her straightforward words on the pages, I was befuddled at how they could be considered “beautiful.”

Le Rêve- Picasso

Woman with Mandolin-Picasso

But perhaps it is not the words themselves, but the fact that they create meaning for some readers, truths about being human, and that renders them beautiful, in the same way that Picasso’s art is beautiful to some eyes. His paintings force us out of our typical perceptions, whispers in ways we may not be able to voice, even disturbs, but speaks the language of meaning and (some) find that beautiful, even in the harshness or starkness of his lines, just as some find beauty in abstract art or different types of music . . . or spiders.

Beauty is observable by all our senses, including our ability to see a beautiful act of kindness or a beautiful scientific formula. If we are uniquely capable of determining beauty, then we have a responsibility to see it, to open our eyes to it, to find meaning in it, our uniquely human meaning.

 

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Posted in Uncategorized | 2 Comments

One Simple, Life-Changing Thought

Have you ever tossed and turned in bed, unable to sleep because your mind was wildly bouncing from thought to thought? One of those thoughts being, Why can’t I stop thinking? What an interesting thought, your mind says. How can “I” stop thinking? Am I not my thoughts?

I’ll skip to the answer:  No. “You” are not your thoughts.

The way to that conclusion is deceptively simple, yet life changing.

I wonder if the whole practice of meditation came about because of some woman’s difficulty sleeping thousands of years ago. Yes, I know men take credit, but, according to the latest science, women’s brains are more active than men’s. Women multitask and use more parts of the brain, leading, interestingly enough, to the fact that they need more sleep than men. Their brains get more tired.

They can also get stuck in thought buzz-land. Men too, of course.

Meditation is a practice of being still physically and watching mentally. It is becoming deliberately aware of the “I” observing the thoughts. Each time one arises, you recognize it and put it aside. You are not so much stilling the thoughts as finding the Watcher. She is elusive. If you stop paying attention, she slips away and seems to loose herself in the thought, to become the thought.

What is the point?

Just as in sports, you train muscles, in meditation practice, you are training the muscle of your mind. Don’t get me wrong. The thoughts that arise are not unimportant. Your subconscious is a power house that you can channel, something I wrote about in 3 Steps To Engage The Secret Smartest Part of Your Brain. What arises from your subconscious can be significant and powerful or it can be trivial. It can be contradictory, emotionally loaded, or an idle worry. Your subconscious is as much a part of you as your lungs or heart, but a thought is its product. It is not “you” the watcher, you the decider. It is not “thinking” that distinguishes us from most of the other life on this planet, it is the awareness of thinking.

In our culture, we are not taught to distinguish between the thought and the watcher-decider.

So what?

Here’s what. If we think—I am the worst wife/mother/sister that ever was—and make no distinction between the thought and the watcher-decider, we give that thought enormous power. It is just a thought! You could have also have thought—I am a big banana.

big-banana

 

What is the difference?

Vive la différence, my friend. You are not a big banana. Or a little one, for that matter. Thoughts populate for many reasons. There is a lot of electrical activity going on in the brain. Our brain developed, not to be the most precise or effective instrument for many tasks, but to be creative. Our success in survival is an outgrowth of that ability:

Nut in hard shell=no food. Nut + stone + smash=food.

The possibility of creativity (which meant survival in evolutionary terms) arises when two or multiple disparate ideas collide, i.e., our subconscious brain is designed to be a high-energy-let’s-try-this-and-that-together, kind of place. It is such a wild environment (pay attention to your dreams if you don’t believe this) that an “I” monitor arose to make decisions. This “I” can get in the way sometimes. It is not needed so much when a tiger appears. Decision to Get Out of Dodge is made on a more basic level. The being who stops to ponder about tigers and life gets eaten.

But the “I”-monitor/watcher-decider, plays an extraordinarily important role. As a writer, what I do with a creative idea is as critical as having one. Some ideas need to be discarded. An idea is not sacred. A thought is not necessarily true. You are not a big banana. You are probably not the worst person on the planet either. It is just a thought and you are free to have another one, such as, I am the best that I can be at the moment. Or I made a mistake. It’s not the end of the world. Or I wonder why I am beating myself up over something stupid?

You can let go of anger because you can have angry (or whatever) thoughts, but you don’t have to keep them. You can even change them, because they are not “you.” They are just thoughts. This tiny, subtle distinction can literally change your life.

And maybe help you sleep.

For-free-story-and-newsletter

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , | 3 Comments

Why Today Matters

Today is the 53rd anniversary of the 16th St Church bombing. In light of all the terrorism in the world, is it still relevant to remember this event? Many more than 4 young girls have been killed in school massacres, movie theaters, the Twin Towers. What about that particular bomb planted in the dead of night at a black church in 1963 makes us pause in our busy days . . . and remember?

4-little-girls-statue

I’m not sure I can answer this fully. I do know that it is important to remember the awful cost of hate in any form it manifests and remembering one does not mean forgetting others. But that said, this bombing symbolized the cost of hatred in a way that brought to light how it had festered in our midst for so long and made us face that as a nation, opening a path for real change.

Below is something I wrote earlier this year, a chance encounter that made me think about this:

Another hot pink toenail story.

I’m in beautiful Charleston, SC and stop at a shoe store. Great shoes in this city! Am wearing a matching hot pink US Marine tee shirt (yes, really). An African American sales lady approaches and tells me about all of her many family members who are in the armed forces, though she stayed home to raise her children. As we chat (and I try on shoes, hence the toes get a part in this story), she asks where I’m from.

“Birmingham.”

“Oh my father went to Birmingham a few years ago,” she says. “My brother’s school also went.”

I give her my “author” card, and she wrinkles her forehead. “You’re T.K. Thorne?”

I nod. This is a fun part for me, as people seem astonished at meeting an author. I get the same reaction when they find out this little silver-haired lady was a police officer.

But she surprises me when she says, “I know your name!”

Sometimes people think they’ve heard of you, so I didn’t think much about it, but she pointed to LAST CHANCE FOR JUSTICE on my card. “You wrote this book? Last-Chance-for-Justice for web

“I did.”

“My father went to B’ham for the 50th anniversary and bought two copies of this book! The author was signing them at the 16th Street Church.”

In fact, I was.

We chat a bit more and then she looks at me and says, “I feel like crying. Thank you for writing this book.”

I smile.

“No, THANK YOU for writing this book.”

She repeats this twice more before what she is saying sinks in and then I feel like crying too. I almost didn’t write this book. There were lots of reasons not to write this book, but I am so thankful that I did. The words “honor” and “privilege” sometimes get bantered about, but at this moment, they really hit me. It was an honor and a privilege, and I will be grateful for having told this story and written this book for the rest of my life.

Last Chance For Justice: How Relentless Investigators Uncovered New Evidence Convicting The Birmingham Church Bombers

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , | 2 Comments

Chicago Angels

IMG_0527

My adventure in the Windy City began with hot pink toenails. (Stay with me.) Sister Laura, who has worked so hard with little credit—editing, designing the awesome cover, marketing, and supporting me every step—really wanted us to go to Chicago to receive one of the awards for my latest novel (Angels at the Gate). I should say “our” novel. She also wanted us to attend the BEA (Book Expo America).

Pedicure, at least, called for, right?

But a few days before our flight, Laura fell and hurt her ankle. BEA requires lots of walking about, so she borrowed a wheelchair from a thrift store. It was old, heavy and squeaky, and not knowing its history, she cleaned it with Lysol, which set off the explosive substance detector at the airport. So wheelchair and Laura and all of her stuff had to be searched. After that,no problem, other than the wheelchair not showing up at the gate as promised. Eventually found it in baggage. Piece of cake. We are over the hump. All we have to do is get outside the terminal because Laura has arranged for her friend Bob to pick us up. Bob, it turns out, is 82 years old and doesn’t see well. (Really?) His car is about the same age and smells strongly of gasoline. (Really? Are we going to explode? I have visions of someone in front of us throwing out a lit cigarette.) Bob piles empty boxes on top of the luggage in the back where, I politely mention, they totally block his vision on one side. As he pulls out into the rain and jam-packed traffic–he nonchalantly says, “I’m used to it. ”

[‘It,’ I presume, being not being able to see . . . omg.)

I text our hostess. *If we survive Bob, will be there soon.*

Miraculously, Bob gets us to where we are going, an area several miles north of Chicago in Edgewater, where we have rooms at a friend’s cousin’s lovely condo.

That night is the award event. We leave the condo early, me pushing the squeaky, cumbersome wheelchair that randomly applies its own brakes down the sidewalk. Laura has called the Chicago Transit Authority, who assured her that ALL the metro train stations are handicap accessible. And, indeed, when we arrive at the nearest station, we find out there is a way to get a wheelchair into the station. But “handicap accessible” does not stretch to having an elevator to get up the many stairs to the subway platform.

Reversing course, we head to next station down the line which has an elevator where we meet a nice young man with the CTA who helps us up to the platform. I ask his name.

“Angel,” he says.

My first thought is how appropriate, the name of my book, and he was indeed an angel. WAIT. The name of my book. OMG, I have forgotten a copy of my book (necessary to hold when getting picture taken at awards. The last thing our publicist said was, “Don’t forget a copy of the book for the photo.”) I leave Laura on platform with Angel, hurrying back to the condo. By this time, my feet are aching in my boots (which I am wearing because my skirt rises too far in front for knee-high stockings, and I will die before pantyhose.)

toesI grab a copy of my book and switch my boots for sandals. Still have on black socks, because this is Chicago, not Birmingham. I look down to see two bright pink big toes peeking out through holes in the socks.

I grab boots for later donning. By the time I get back, we are pretty late. Angel gets us on the subway, but fails to show us how to lock in the wheelchair. Although she has the brakes on, they are not that spiffy. At first lurch, Laura rolls down the aisle.

 

A second angel jumps up from her seat and shows us how to lock in the wheel chair. We are set, but clock is ticking. The whole purpose of the event is to get that photo op. We are a long way from our stop, the closest one to the (Sears) Willis Tower with an elevator.

As we are discussing strategy for when we exit, a third angel pops up from her seat and plops next to me. “You’re going to Willis Tower? I work near there.” And she kindly explains which way to walk from our next stop. We are so late now, we must take a cab.

Holding our breath against the olfactory assault in the elevator (and wishing for my boots which are in Laura’s lap); we descend to the street. I step out into the roadway and hail a cab for first time in my life (hey, I live in Alabama; a household is incomplete without two cars and a pickup truck). Cab stops, but this is no angel; he shakes his head at the wheelchair, which even folded up, he says will not fit in his cab. Doesn’t even try. We go on. I hail another cab, who also shakes his head at the wheelchair. We push on to Willis Tower afoot and a-roll through the puddles and treachery of cracked sidewalks. We are now very late.

Willis (Sears) Tower is massive. We enter and proceed via elevator to a winding corridor down to the security station, surely close to our goal, only to find we are at the wrong door and have to be escorted through the labyrinth of the Tower to the service elevators in order to reach 99th floor and the Independent Publisher’s party and award announcement. We are finally here! We register, pick up our ID’s and a program . . . from which we learn “Historical Fiction” is #15 on the list and they are now announcing #26. We missed it. All the way from Alabama to Chicago . . . and WE MISSED IT!

I wheel Laura to the bathroom. I feel worse for her, since she really wanted this, and it is as much her award as mine.

While waiting for her, I notice we are sort of “back stage” to the awards announcer, and a beautiful young woman is standing with her back to me, so close I can touch her with one step. She is obviously connected to the proceedings. Hearing one of my father’s lesson’s in my head (Only the squeaky wheel gets the oil.), I take that step and tap her shoulder, whispering that we had difficulties and just arrived, and is there any way we could go out of order? She steps out of the big room where we both can hear each other, and consulting a list, asks my name.

“T.K. Thorne.”

She brightens. “Oh, you are T.K. Thorne? I LOVED your book!”

“You read it?”

“Yes, I really loved it; it was my favorite book out of all of them.”

There are 80 national categories. No idea how many submissions in each category, but that’s a lot of books. As far as I am concerned, I am happy. Dianu. (Hebrew for “it is enough.”)

But she graciously arranged for us to get called up, Laura hobbling at my side. They put a huge medal worthy of the Olympics around my neck and, to my delight, around Laura’s. Photo snaps.

Ben Franklin Award Acceptance in Chicago copy

Then we head to the bar.

IMG_0525

View out the Willis Tower, drink in hand

IMG_0526

View out the Willis Tower, second drink in hand

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

IMG_0527

View from Willis Tower . . . no comment.

 

Over the next several days we encounter angels and references to them in rather odd ways. One “angel” (whose friend is Angela) shows me how to use Uber (yea!); the Egyptian uber driver mentions his son’s name is translated as “Angel in Heaven”; a book publicist at the Book Expo America (BEA) advises me to “listen to my angel.”  I keep looking for a flutter of wings out of the corner of my eye!

white-1184178_1280

IMG_0540

Laura at BEA

 

LK & TKT at Ippy booth

At the IPPY award display

On our last day, Bob picks us up, and we load wheelchair and baggage. After bungee cording his trunk down (not because of our luggage, just normal procedure), we are off to the airport with an extra hour, just in case. It is bitter cold, but I roll down the windows because I can’t afford losing any more brain cells from the fumes. There is so much stuff in this car, it is unidentifiable. I try not to figure out what it is and just hope there are no rodents that live near my feet. I am in the back seat and I reach for the seatbelt. Actually find one, but there’s no buckle, so I just loop it around one shoulder. There’s a chance if we hit something at just the right angle, it might help. Laura is in the front seat. “What’s that noise?” she asks, forehead wrinkled in concern. Is it the engine?

“I don’t know,” Bob says. “Haven’t heard that one before.”

Laura: “Sounds bad.”

Bob: “Unless the wheels fall off, I usually just turn up the radio.”

I couldn’t make this up.

Postscript:  Despite appearances, Bob was one of the many Chicago angels, for sure. He has spent most of his life traveling around the world helping people in disasters, which is how he and Laura met. I really wish I could spend more time with him and hear his stories . . .  just not in his car.

Laura & Bob_resized

Laura and Bob

 

For-free-story-and-newsletter

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , | 7 Comments

3 Steps to Engage the Secret Smartest Part of Your Brain

 

512px-Cartesian_Theater.svg

The dumbest part of your brain is the part you think you think with—the conscious brain, that elusive whatever-it-is that feels like the control room housing the “I.” Surprisingly, that “I” part can actually only process a tiny amount of information, only .0000045% of what the rest of your brain is doing every second!

“Psychologists agree that only one to four ‘items,’ either thoughts or sensations, can be held in the mind, immediately available to consciousness, at the same time.”

[This explains why multi-tasking can lead to disaster!]

 “According to the work of Manfred Zimmerman of Germany’s Heidelberg University, only a woeful fifty bits of information per second make their way into the conscious brain, while an estimated eleven million bits of data flow [in] from the senses every second . . . .” –Stephen Baker, author of Final Jeopardy: Man vs. Machine and the Quest to Know Everything

Noted philosopher Alan Watts compared the conscious brain to a flashlight in a dark room, only illuminating a small section of the contents at time.flashlight in dark room

All the sensory input your body is receiving at this moment is way too much for your conscious brain to handle, so the rest of your brain feeds it to you in screened or summarized chunks, sometimes calling on memories to fill in the gaps.  As an example, at this moment, you are probably unaware of the pressure of your bottom in the chair (until I mentioned it), and the thousands of other inputs your mind is receiving via your eyes, ears, skin, taste, smell and other senses (and yes there are others) in order to focus on reading this article. Nor are you conscious of the millions of “decisions” you are making regarding your physical state—your heart rate, blood pressure, body temperature, digestion, hormone and enzyme regulation, etc.  In an odd way, those things don’t feel like you. Only the “I” feels real.

Your subconscious, however, is you, as much as your arms or eyes or heart.  Its power is yours and available to you. But how do you access it?

SUBNET_Final_1

While talking with a group of book club readers about my writing process, I realized that, research aside, I actually began both of my novels from a scary blank place. The concepts were there—a feminist, realistic take on the stories of two unnamed women who each only got one line in the biblical text—but I had no idea about the shape of the story or where it would go.

pen-paper2

The flashlight in the room felt like a penlight!

Both of those ideas and women became fully fleshed out novels. How? In both cases I wrote a first sentence with absolutely no idea what words would come next. (Some writers are proponents of having an outline before starting a book, but I contend that the ideas for the outline have to come from somewhere too, and so those writers must go through a creative process, although the product, an outline, may be different from my organic building of plot and character.)

For example, in researching my first novel, Noah’s Wife, I read that the traditional Jewish name for Noah’s wife was Na’amah and that the name meant beautiful or pleasant.  Clueless how that was to become a book, “I” wrote the first sentence—“My name, Na’amah, means beautiful or pleasant.”  [Creative, huh?]  But the very next sentence my fingers typed, seemingly on their own, was “I am not always pleasant, but I am beautiful.”  From there the character came alive and felt as real as if she were whispering the words in my ear.  It felt as though Na’amah “took over” most of the process.  The “I” part was relegated to figuring out what happened to her next. She reacted to it “on her own.”

The same thing happened with Lot’s wife in her own subsequent book, Angels At The Gate. Again, having no idea about her or her life, other than the clue that she might have a little problem with obedience, I gave her a name and wrote, “I am Adira. . . .” On cue, she responded with two unexpected sentences that took me totally by surprise and framed the remainder of the book.

Library-Journal-Rev--with-NW-&-Angels

Where did those characters and their strong voices come from? For me, writing can feel like the ancients must have felt when they ascribed their creativity to the Muses, the Greek and Roman goddesses who presided over the arts and sciences.  It seems to come from an “outside” source, that is somewhere separate and different from the “I.”

But I believe the words actually come from the dark room. My brain, the part I am unaware of, has a deep, deep intelligence, the product of millions of years of evolution and problem-solving.  It is not an aspect unique to me, although I have spent thousands of hours feeding it and drawing on it for the purpose of telling stories.

You have the same deep intelligence. Your entire mind is there; you just can’t perceive it with the conscious “I” part.  The secret to accessing it is an act of trust. You trust it to monitor your heartbeat, to digest your food, and to tell you when you’re in love, but it’s hard to consciously hand the reins over to what is essentially a dark zone. Maybe in prehistoric times we were more attuned to that aspect of ourselves.  Maybe the price of self-consciousness is a kind of disconnection from the subconscious. Or perhaps as children we connected intuitively and effortlessly to that part of ourselves through the paths of play and imagination. Somehow—through evolutional processes or by growing up—we have lost how to listen to the deeper, hidden part of our minds.

“Sleep on it” is a common advice for a perplexing problem. But giving up a problem to the subconscious is as difficult to do as trying to relax.  The harder you try, the more unrelaxed you are. Similarly, you can’t make yourself go to sleep. You have to give up on that and let it happen. It is not something the “I” controls. An exception may be found with a few Yogi masters who have, after long years of practice, found ways to access the autonomic systems of their bodies unavailable consciously to most of us, but they can do it because they tap into the dark room. Their particular technique (which might be accomplished with biofeedback as well) is meditation. Meditation, the act of being “thought-less,” is really a state where the “I” brain gets out of the way, but remains observant (to some degree) of the deep intelligence that arises.

3 Steps to the Dark Room: maxresdefault

The knowledge that your perceptions and thoughts are only a tiny bit of light in a dark room full of wonder and power is the first step to accessing that part of yourself more fully. The second step is to help yourself accept that emotionally and to feed the dark room with reading, music, meditation, workouts, long walks in silence, or whatever works for you. This is not wasted time; it is essential time. The third step is to step aside, to let go . . . to trust the hidden deep intelligence that is an integral part of you.

black-divider-th

T.K. Thorne is an author whose award-winning novels are Noah’s Wife and Angels at the Gate. Her nonfiction book Last Chance for Justice: How Relentless Investigators Uncovered New Evidence in the Birmingham Church Bombing was listed on the New York Post’s “Books You Should Be Reading.”

For-free-story-and-newsletter

 

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , | 7 Comments

Rosa Parks & Corn Creek

Rosaparks

Rosa Parks in 1955; Martin Luther King in background

When I met Rosa Parks, I was too young to have much perspective on anything, but I did realize that I was meeting someone famous. I sat on the front porch of Virginia and Clifford Durr’s farm at “Pea Level” in Wetumpka, Alabama. Sandwiched between my mother and Ms. Parks, I perspired and fretted silently. There was no air conditioning, so the porch was the place to sit and drink iced tea and hope for a breeze.

Normally, I would have immediately run off down the well-worn path to Corn Creek in the woods behind the Durr’s cabin, built a section at a time, for the most part, with Cliff Durr’s own hands. But today, my mother—no doubt knowing this an educational opportunity not to be missed—had insisted I stay with the adults and meet Ms. Parks.

Clifford Durr often left the conversations up to Virginia, making himself scarce by fixing something, tending the pump or mysterious things that needed taking care of in the barn. I knew vaguely he had been an important man in Franklin D. Roosevelt’s administration and in the Civil Rights battles, a person who had affected history in many ways. But to me, he was the kind, gentle man who showed me how to negotiate the steep path down to the creek and patiently led me, perched atop his black horse, Nikki, through the woods, so I wouldn’t get lost. We always wound up at the far end of his pasture where he would turn us both loose to gallop home. Later, he bragged to everyone that I was the only person who could make old Nikki run. I suspected this was not true, as I didn’t “make” Nikki do anything. Like most horses, he was happy to run back to the barn, and I just held on, but I beamed with pride, anyway, at Cliff’s praise.

Durrs

The Durrs,*, Courtesy of Birmingham Public Library Archives

Virginia was what we southerners would call “a piece of work, ” a complex, eccentric woman who became close friends with Eleanor Roosevelt and a “den mother” hosting civil rights activists from across the country. She had worked tirelessly against the poll tax levied on black voters, and equally hard for the passage of the 1965 Civil Rights Act. She employed Rosa Parks as a seamstress, but they soon became close friends. Virginia obtained a scholarship for Rosa Parks at the Highlander Folk School where the young black woman learned about equality and became passionate about civil rights. At the time of her arrest, she was the secretary of the Montgomery NAACP.

At her farm in Wetumpka, Virginia entertained—or interrogated—visitors from around the world. She had earned the right to do so, apparently, because no one ever crossed her or denied her even the most intimate questions. I recall one young man in his twenties who had made the pilgrimage to her door being asked (after the obligatory demand, “Who are your people?”) whether he had a girlfriend, and then, to my adolescent horror, whether they had had sex yet. Hence, I normally fled to the creek.

But all this was far from my mind that summer afternoon when I sat with Rosa Parks, Virginia Durr, and my mother on the Durr’s porch. Grownup talk buzzed around me, and I was quiet for a while, itching to get released to play at the creek. Then my mother invited me to ask a question of Ms. Parks. To my surprise, I found I did have a question about what happened that day on the bus when she refused to give up her seat, that moment on December 1, 1955 that sparked the Montgomery bus boycott, pushing Martin Luther King into a national leadership role, and igniting the Civil Rights Movement. What I wanted to know was this: Had that moment been a spontaneous act or a planned one?

“What really happened that day on the bus?” I ventured of Ms. Parks, curiosity spiked by the conversation’s implication that it had been orchestrated in some way, which was not what I had learned in school. “Were you really just tired and didn’t want to get up?”

Rosa Parks turned to me with a good-natured chuckle, and said, “Oh, it was planned, child. I’d never have done it if I didn’t know that Mr. Durr and Mr. [E.D.] Nixon were there to bail me out.”

The moment burned itself into my memory because I felt betrayed and a bit angry. My teachers had taught something completely different, and, apparently, Ms. Parks had gone along with the tale. Why didn’t she correct them and tell the truth? Were they all using the “I was too tired to get up” story to somehow gain an advantage? And worse, Rosa Parks suddenly didn’t seem like the hero she had been, but a woman who knew she had a safely net all along.

It took many years before I realized my naivety and regained the respect due this brave woman. Having attorneys behind her guaranteed nothing in a world where the claws of the Ku Klux Klan reached deep into every institution, including law enforcement, jail guards, and even beneath the black robes of the judiciary. She knew very well what she was up against. It was a far more courageous act than it would have been had she simply acted out of a spontaneous, contrary urge. Indeed, her action had come with a cost that changed her life forever—she was fired from her job and could not find employment, and for many years afterward, she received death threats. Eventually, she had to leave the South.

Teresa at Pea Level copy

T.K. at Corn Creek circa 1970; Photo by David Kerns

I regret I did not spend more time with Rosa Parks or listening to Virginia Durr at Pea Level as she “held court” with the movers and shakers of the civil rights era or with the people who came to pay their respects and hear what it had been like “in the day.” My memories of Pea Level are more tied to hours spent riding old Niki or jumping barefoot from boulder to boulder, exploring the endlessly fascinating meanderings of Corn Creek in a haze of uncomplicated joy.

But those memories are precious; they live somewhere in the core of who I am. I like to hope, as well, that the air of civil and human rights I was privileged to breath in my youth—though I didn’t have the perspective to treasure—also helped shape and define who I am.

black-divider-th

*  AUM (Auburn University in Montgomery) sponsors the Durr Lectures every spring in honor of Virginia and Clifford Durr and their contribution to civil rights.

black-divider-th

T.K. Thorne is a retired police captain (Birmingham, Alabama) and director of City Action Partnership, and an award-winning author of fiction and non-fiction.

For-free-story-and-newsletter

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , | 23 Comments