Willie Waller

Willie died a few years ago but he wouldn’t mind me telling you his story, at least the part of it that has stuck with me. Willie and I met in February 1995 when I became the Director of Operations of South Highland Presbyterian Church in Birmingham, Alabama. South Highland Presbyterian is a beautiful building – built in phases in 1892, 1926, 1955, and 1996. The sanctuary and chapel are stunningly gorgeous.


In 1995 South Highland built a 25,000 square foot, $4 million dollar children’s building and renovated the existing facilities. It was a much-needed overhaul of the current buildings with a badly-needed structure designed for kids. South Highland had a glorious past but had struggled to retain its members so the children’s building was the church’s effort to tell those who moved to the suburbs that the church was very much alive with a vibrant program for kids. It worked – South Highland to this day is a wonderful church.


In the 1950s and 1960s, Birmingham, Alabama was racked by racial strife. City and county leadership didn’t want Blacks to have equal rights, equal education, equal opportunities, etc. In the midst of that tension, there were good relationships (but not equal) between individual Blacks and Whites – they were cordial and friendly to each other but there was a caste system between the two races. They lived on different sides of the railroad tracks and different sides of Red Mountain. In the 1960s, White Flight created the booming cities OTM (Over The Mountain, Red Mountain) which today form the business engine of north central Alabama. Willie grew up in a segregated and sometimes violent city.


Willie had already been the custodian at the church for 16 years when I got there. He was an institution: he knew all the members, he knew their cars and would get members out of worship if they left their car lights on; he knew how to run the building; he was THE caretaker of God’s house. Before coming to South Highland, Willie worked in one of the steel mills near Birmingham. That’s where breathed asbestos particles and developed a horrible illness which clogged his lungs. He got a monthly $300 check from the asbestosis lawsuit settlement but the illness shortened his life. He didn’t die from that though, his kidneys began to shut down and he had dialysis three times a week. The docs put a tube in his arm – that really grossed me out to see that tube. His death was greatly mourned by the mostly white congregants of South Highland – they still miss him today.


On to the story, my most painful story about Willie. During the renovation work in 1996, all the bathrooms got a makeover. There was one bathroom, literally under some stairs, that was impossible to re-do. When I man used it, he would hit his head on the angled ceiling (which was the downward angle of the stairs); women never used it because it was so bad. So I had that made into a mop-sink, janitor’s closet. It was perfect. There was floor sink and a faucet – I thought it was a great solution.


Shortly after that bathroom was completed, Willie came to my office. “Steve,” he said, “where should I use the bathroom now?” I didn’t understand the question. I told Willie that the church had sixteen bathrooms and he should use whichever one he wanted to, except the pastor’s private bathroom. Willie replied, “I can’t do that. See, I can only use the bathroom that you took away.” I still didn’t understand, “What do you mean you can only use that bathroom?” “Steve, when I started working here, I was told that the bathroom under the stairs is the only bathroom I could use and now you’ve done taken it away.”


I was stunned. The history of Birmingham’s Civil Rights struggles was now squarely in my face. This Black man, a very proud and dignified man, was told he could only use the “Colored Restroom” in the church and all the other bathrooms were for “Whites Only.” I sat there not knowing what to do, how to say what, and somewhere between anger and astonishment.

After 15 seconds of silence (which felt like minutes), I said, “Willie, you can use any bathroom in the entire church. Every bathroom here is available to you. And if anyone, and I mean anyone, says anything to you about you using a bathroom, you come tell me or Dana [the senior pastor, Dana Waters, a wonderful gentleman] and we’ll take it up with that person.”

Later, I told Dana about the conversation and he supported me and was equally incensed that one of God’s children, a servant in God’s house, would be relegated to second or third-class status. We agreed that we’d do our part, the right thing, to help erase Birmingham’s taint, if it ever came up – it never did. It was nice to know the church had grown up and moved on past those issues, at least in its building. At some point later, I saw Willie in bathrooms throughout the church – it was nice to see him using the “Whites Only” bathrooms.


I miss Willie. He brought home to me for one instant, for less than five minutes, the struggles that he endured for over 65 years. I’m sorry he experienced discrimination at all but it was disgraceful that he experienced any in God’s church. I was glad I could be part of giving grace back to a really, nice man, Willie Waller.


Lead On!

Francine Heard It

Francine heard it. She told me when I came to work that morning that the explosion rattled the windows throughout South Highland Presbyterian Church. After all, the church is only about six or seven blocks from the New Woman All Women Clinic. As the windows shook, a police officer lay dying and a nurse was critically wounded and Eric Rudolph fled Birmingham in a gray pickup truck. It would be years before he was discovered in North Carolina, living as a hermit in the forest, scouring dumpsters for food, and then tried and convicted for his entire life.

But he is not the story.


The blast also rattled Francine. It shook her bad. Because she remembered another explosion: Sunday, September 15, 1963 at 10:25 a.m. She was going to church, not to the 16th Street Baptist Church where the dynamite was planted but to another predominately African-American church.


Francine, now dead, was a church lady. She wore fancy clothes to church with a matching hat – she was quite a sight as an adult when she went to church. I’m sure she was poor – that was a common denominator for blacks in Birmingham in the 1960s – but she was also proud even on the day of her funeral in her fancy, going-to-meet-God clothes. She loved the church, I’m sure she loved God, too, but she really loved her church. To see and be seen – to talk and be talked about: that was church. Francine was a trip – fun to be around but sometimes she just got talking and you didn’t know the difference between fact and fancy. Sometimes she didn’t know either.


She told me about the day the bomb went off that killed four girls in the church bathroom as they were prettying themselves for church upstairs. They never made it. Sticks of dynamite rocked the foundation of the church and of the Black community. The white community, too, was horrified for the most part. But Birmingham had already started its white flight to the new cities of Mountain Brook, Homewood, Vestavia Hills, and Hoover adjoining Birmingham.


I moved to Birmingham in 1995. That’s when I met Francine and a whole lot of others who were there in the marches, saw the dogs and the water cannons. Both Black and White – I talked with them and learned about their lives. Bill French told me about the day his shoeshine man said, “Mr. Bill, don’t go down that street this afternoon. There’s gonna be trouble down there.” Odessa Woolfolk ran the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute for its first five years and I heard her tell of life in Birmingham – sometimes known back then as Bombingham – in the 1960s.


My wife worked at Woman’s Missionary Union up on New Hope Mountain next to six-lane Hwy 280. A couple of miles from WMU, Hwy 280 crosses the Cahaba River. The new Hwy 280 bridge parallels the old two lane bridge which connects a Target shopping center with HealthSouth corporate offices. Under that small bridge four men plotted to blow up a church. I don’t know nor do I want to know the details of their planning, what was going through their minds, or how much hate it takes to plan destruction. Whatever they talked about under that bridge changed Birmingham and America forever.


For decades the men were not prosecuted. In 2001, District Attorney David Jones, pulled all the pieces together and took Thomas Blanton to court. I met DA Jones earlier when he prosecuted a man who tried to break in South Highland Presbyterian when I was there. Small world.


Blanton was convicted and sent to prison where he died a few years later. I went to see an hour of his trial before a lunch recess was called. I passed through the metal detectors, entered the courtroom floor and found a seat on the second row. I was just a few feet from the accused. He was quiet, let his lawyer do the talking, and just sat there. I wondered what he was thinking – but I really didn’t care. He convicted himself by the actions that carried out his 1963 thoughts. I went because I knew this was Birmingham history and I wanted to see it for myself. I wanted to see if this old man had any compassion or remorse. Thomas Blanton didn’t seem to care one whit.


A couple of years passed and I changed jobs to Dawson Memorial Baptist Church. It is in Homewood, about 10 miles from 16th Street Baptist Church. While I was there, the family of Denise McNair joined the church – Denise was killed at 16th Street Baptist. They were active members and involved in the life of the church. I didn’t get to know them before I left town – I just knew they were good church folk.


In forty years Birmingham has changed – an African-American family with a widely known name joining a mostly white congregation. Birmingham has come a long way – Dawson has had an African-American deacon chair. Birmingham is better but it still has a long way to go. It is a strange circle of ripples that I saw played out in front of me while I was there. I got to see people who were personally involved in the events of 1963. Four men and women – four girls – four ripples.


Lead On!


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