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The Gentle Giant of Dynamite Hill
By Helen Shores Lee Barbara S. Shores
ZondervanCopyright © 2012 Helen Shores Lee and Barbara S. Shores
All right reserved.
Chapter One"Why, Daddy?"
1953, at our home on Birmingham's Center Street on "Dynamite Hill" (Helen remembers.)
Daddy, why is it legal for someone to harass us, but not legal for us to respond back to them? —HELEN SHORES LEE, 12, Birmingham, Alabama, 1953
I can still recall the pinging sound bullets made when someone in a passing car shot the window in our recreation room. The thick glass usually prevented the window from shattering, but the bullets would pierce through and lodge in our interior walls. Each bullet made its mark—a small hole through the glass—and each bullet brought our mother fresh new fear.
In 1953 I was twelve years old, living with my father, mother, and younger sister, Barbara, in Birmingham, Alabama, an old steel-producing city and the hotbed of racial injustice and violence in the United States. Shortly after World War II, the invisible line that supposedly divided black homeowners from white homeowners began to blur. Black residents built their homes a little too close to the white community, and the white-sheeted Ku Klux Klan tried to scare black residents from the area by bombing their homes. Our neighborhood had had so many unsolved, Klan-related bombings that people dubbed our street "Dynamite Hill," yet none of these bombers ever faced arrest or punishment.
Our ranch-style brick house had a good-sized grassy front yard, a fenced-in backyard for Barbara's beloved dogs, and a large thick picture window in our living room and recreation room facing Center Street. In the evenings my dad, mother, sister, and I often sat in the recreation room together and watched television. If it was a Saturday night, together we enjoyed my dad's favorite meal, hot dogs with mustard and fresh-squeezed lemonade. Every Saturday night!
On this particular night, however, our family sat outside on the front porch. It was unusually quiet, except for the sounds of crickets and a few cars passing by every now and then. Then the roar of an engine cut through the night air as a car filled with angry white youth raced down the hill toward our house.
A Legal Pioneer
For years, our mother, whom we lovingly called "Mummee," had begged Daddy to move us far away from Alabama and its unjust Jim Crow laws that segregated black and white people, away from white officials who responded with physical violence when anyone challenged their humiliating laws. But our dad, born and reared in Alabama, was committed to stay and help the state's black people in spite of the Klan's constant threats of violence to him. In all their years together, my mom lost only one major argument to my dad, whom she affectionately called "Shores," and that was refusing to move our family to Michigan as she requested.
Our father, Arthur Davis Shores, had studied hard and passed the Alabama Bar exam in 1937. He was not the first black man to pass the Alabama Bar Exam, but for a long time, he was the only practicing black attorney in the state of Alabama. As one author described the situation in those days, "Between 1925 and 1937, the need for black lawyers in Alabama was so great that 'hundreds of poor colored people are hard labor prisoners today, because they did not have a lawyer to represent them.'"
Daddy was a pioneer who dared to step into the white man's court and defend the unjustly accused black man and woman. He had bravely represented and won civil rights cases in Alabama for some twenty-five years before Dr. Martin Luther king, Jr. arrived in Birmingham in 1963 with the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). The Klan made life difficult for my family, and especially for my dad, a quiet, soft-spoken gentleman and a man of deep Christian faith. Known as a civil rights lawyer, he believed that "by continually representing Negroes in cases that resulted in changing the status quo, I became known as an enemy to the good people of Birmingham."
On the Defensive
For our family's protection, our dad kept several guns in our house. One was a small Smith & Wesson he wore in a leather holster strapped to his shoulder under his suit coat every time he left the house. The other was an old Colt .45 he kept loaded in a dresser drawer in the guest bedroom. He never shot anybody and only reached for the gun once, when he felt our family was threatened. But loaded guns gave us, as well as many other black families on Dynamite Hill, some needed protection and a sense of security against repeated Klan threats and violence.
I loved and admired my dad, but it was not easy being his daughter. When our dad represented Autherine Lucy in the early to mid-1950s and got involved in the integration of the University of Alabama, things really heated up. Miss Lucy, the first black student admitted, caused an uproar when she wanted to enroll and study at the all-white state university. We kept the loaded guns close to us that year. Some men in our neighborhood took turns guarding our house, just in case Klan members decided to plant a bomb and blow it up. Our neighbors worked as volunteer security guards, and they would jump anybody who even looked like a threat to our dad or to our family. Once they tackled and pinned down to the ground a Western Union messenger who was simply trying to deliver a telegram to us. In those days, no one was above suspicion.
Life on "Dynamite Hill"
That year, 1953, we had moved from our home on First Street to Dynamite Hill's Center Street, only five blocks away to the neighborhood known as Smithfield—squarely in the middle of Birmingham's racial zoning conflict. Whenever our mother learned what new cases our father was taking on, she would exclaim with a look of fear in her face, "Lord, have mercy! What is your father doing now?!"
But each evening our dad knelt and prayed for safety and for change. And each morning he woke up early, determined to tackle the unfair status quo for African Americans in Alabama and in the South. Surely, our Dad's faith in God and His protection proved strong and sure, for he stood up and fought fearlessly for what he believed. Fortunately, nobody in our house ever got shot, but our window was shot so many times that our dad hired a permanent contractor to replace it—over and over again.
After each incident, our dad reminded us anew of the "family drill": "When someone fires into the house," he told us, "immediately hit the floor, put your head down, and crawl quickly to a safe place."
One time, early on in our life on Dynamite Hill, we called the police after a bullet blazed through our front window. During those days all of Birmingham's police officers were white, and when we told the white officer what had happened, he seemed disinterested. In fact, he didn't write down a word we said. Barbara found the bullet's casing on the ground by our house and pointed it out to him. The policeman took his foot, kicked the casing out of sight, and said, "That's nothing." We quickly learned that reporting the gun "pings" did little good.
Another time we heard a loud bang as something huge slammed into our picture window. A car had driven by and thrown a six-foot-tall object at our house. It was homemade, heavy, and looked like the "Tin Man" from The Wizard of Oz. Fortunately, the window held, and the Tin Man hit the ground without damaging our home.
A Front Row Seat to History
At that time, I didn't appreciate the fact that I had a front row seat to "history in the making" as Daddy met with and represented such civil rights leaders as Dr. Martin Luther king, Jr. in the Montgomery Bus Boycott trial. What I did know was that the threats of violence against my family meant I couldn't walk to and from school each day. I had to be driven. During those frightening years on Dynamite Hill, only a few relatives and very close friends would come to visit us, and Barbara and I were forbidden to give out our telephone number. I couldn't even give my phone number to my boyfriends—and I had lots of boyfriends! Regardless, every three or four days, because of all the threatening phone calls that somehow managed to seep through our personal home phone line, we had to change the number to yet another new unlisted one.
As a child, I felt so afraid of the Klan that I slept with the old Colt .45 under my pillow so that I'd be ready in case someone broke into the house in the middle of a dark night. Each evening, I'd sneak it from the guest bedroom's dresser drawer before I went to bed, place it under my pillow, and hide it from my parents. Barbara and I would lie awake at night and talk (I did most of the talking) about what we'd do to someone if they tried to "get us" in the middle of the night. It was a real possibility, and we both knew it.
My Uncle Rob often took me up to North Alabama to Uncle Farney's farm to hunt, and it was there that I learned to shoot, so a loaded gun within my reach at night made me sleep better. Had any intruders slipped into our bedroom, I would have shot them—no doubt about that! Early every morning, I'd tiptoe to the guest bedroom and place the gun quietly back in the dresser drawer. Fortunately, my parents never found out. Only my little sister, Barbara, knew.
A gentler soul, Barbara kept her majorette baton under her pillow at night. I knew that meek, quiet, animal-loving Barbara would never hit anyone with that baton. She worried more about the safety of her pet dogs than about her own safety, and she was too tender-hearted to hurt anybody, even if they threatened her life.
In that sense, Barbara and I were complete opposites. She was a peacemaker who lived with an inner fear, while I was a fighter, living with an inner volcano of rage burning inside at what I saw taking place around me and the restraints it placed on my freedom to move about at will.
Looking back as an adult, I understand my parents' strict safety precautions. They proved necessary, even if they did mess up my budding social life. But at the time, I resented the precautions and rules with a passion. They caused my fellow classmates to think I was "stuck up." They saw me as a girl who wouldn't give them her phone number and who got delivered by car to school every morning and picked up every afternoon. At the time I simply wanted to walk home with my friends from school, flirt with the boys, and stop for an after-school sandwich at Palmer's Barbecue like everybody else did. I saw only the restrictions placed on me. Only later did I appreciate the firsthand opportunities I had in that time and place in history.
As our family sat on our front porch on that tranquil night in 1953, the car of angry youths slowed down almost to a stop in front of our house, and someone in the car shone a spotlight in our faces. We put up our hands to shield our eyes from the blinding light and to protect us from any flying objects that might be directed at our heads. Shouting hateful racial obscenities at us, the boys gunned the car's engine and sped away into the dark. I yelled names back at them.
"Chickadee," said our father, always placid and self-contained, "just ignore them."
But I burned with anger. I wanted to shout back. To be honest, I wanted to hurt them, because they called us such ugly names! I argued with my dad, but he insisted that I ignore the incident. For the next few minutes, we had a spell of quiet.
Then we heard the car engine roar once again as it raced toward our home. Stopping at our front porch and shining the bright light in our faces, they called us more horrible names. Then, like before, they sped away.
"Chickadee," Dad said to me again, "just ignore them."
How dare you insult my family and call us those ugly names! I fumed under my breath.
When I heard the loud gunning sound of their car engine a third time as it raced down the hill toward our home, I just couldn't sit still any longer. I jumped up from my porch seat and disappeared inside the house. I ran to the guest bedroom, opened the dresser drawer, and grabbed the loaded Colt .45. Just you wait! I thought. I hid it behind my back and walked to the front porch.
I didn't have to wait long. The car sped down the hill again. "Niggers, go home!" they shouted. I jerked the Colt .45 from behind my back, aimed it at the youths' hate-twisted faces, and pulled the trigger.
But something happened in the split second before the gun fired. Our dad caught sight of the raised gun, my finger squeezing the trigger. He thrust out his hand hard and quick, and he hit my arm. The bullet burst from the gun, firing high into the air and missing the car. Daddy snatched the gun out of my hand.
"Helen," Daddy said sternly, "You know you'd go to jail if you hit one of those boys! There would be nothing I could do to keep you from going to jail probably for the rest of your life!"
I wiped tears from my face as I felt the impact of his words. "It's not fair," I told him. "We were just sitting on our front porch, minding our own business."
Then I asked our father a question that had lived inside my mind for a long time: "Daddy, why is it legal for someone to harass us, but not legal for us to respond back to them?!"
He didn't answer.
I felt the fury of my anger, indignation, hurt, and fear, all burning deep within the pit of my stomach. That night was the beginning of a series of many racial incidents that would test and mold my youth and finally drive me far away from Birmingham, Alabama, for thirteen long years.
Looking back, I now see that I stayed angry for a long time. Anger became the fabric of my life and being. Even at that young age, I wanted to leave the ugliness of segregated Birmingham and never look back.
Chapter TwoThe Bomb Blast
August 8, 2003, in Judge Helen Shores Lee's Jefferson County, Birmingham, Alabama, courtroom (Helen remembers.)
The bomb blasted away her shins, destroyed her left eye, severely damaged her right eye, and riddled her entire body with nails and shrapnel. — JUDGE HELEN SHORES LEE describing bombing victim Emily Lyons
I moved far from Alabama and stayed away for a long time. But half a century later, my anger had subsided. I had finally returned home to Birmingham to sit on the bench as the first African American woman judge in the civil division of the circuit court of Jefferson County in Birmingham, Alabama. When I was young, I never had any intention of living my life in Birmingham or following in our father's legal footsteps. But I've learned since never to say "never."
I now saw the city through different eyes. I had a husband, children, and grandchildren. I accepted with delight those things that had changed for the better in the city and state—no more "coloreds only" signs above nasty public water fountains and dirty toilets, no more rules that forced black people to sit in the back of city buses, and no more Klan intimidation when black people lined up to register to vote.
As an attorney and as a judge, I was determined to serve as an agent of further change for the good of Birmingham's populace. Our father's fierce love for and dedication to this hurtful and wounded city had taken deep root in my own heart.
Forty Years Later, Another Bombing
As a freshly appointed circuit court judge, I hadn't been on the bench a full year when, on August 8, 2003, I listened to former nurse Emily Lyons tell the court how convicted bomber Eric Robert Rudolph had permanently disfigured her body and altered her life.
I had followed the newspaper accounts when Rudolph's homemade "dirty" bomb exploded on January 29, 1998, in a Birmingham abortion clinic. The explosion at the New Woman All Women Health Care Clinic killed off-duty policeman Robert Sanderson, a friend of my son, Arthur Shores Lee. Nurse Emily Lyons, the mother of two children, was working at the clinic that day, and when the bomb exploded, it blasted away her shins, destroyed her left eye, severely damaged her right eye, and riddled her entire body with nails and shrapnel.
Excerpted from The Gentle Giant of Dynamite Hill by Helen Shores Lee Barbara S. Shores Copyright © 2012 by Helen Shores Lee and Barbara S. Shores. Excerpted by permission of Zondervan. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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