WWU professor's family donates treasured reminder of 1963 church bombing

THE BELLINGHAM HERALDSeptember 23, 2013 

Rand Jimerson's father picked up some pieces of stained-glass window from the dynamited church. The date was Sept. 15, 1963. The place was Birmingham, Ala.

Jimerson's father, Norman J. "Jim" Jimerson, a white Baptist minister, had moved his family to Birmingham two years earlier, leaving behind a much-loved job as a chaplain at a federal reformatory in Virginia. He moved there to become director of the Alabama Council on Human Relations, working with blacks and whites to fight segregation.

Birmingham had earned the nickname of Bombingham for its history of attacks against blacks. Jim Jimerson had been warned about moving there, but presumed his white skin would protect him.

"His attitude was it's a risk, but a calculated risk," said Rand Jimerson, 64, a professor at Western Washington University.

The Ku Klux Klan bombing that morning at the 16th Street Baptist Church killed four young black girls who were attending Sunday school. More than 20 other people were hurt in the blast, and two teen-age black boys were shot to death later that evening.

Jim Jimerson called at least half a dozen white ministers, asking them to join him at the church in a show of support, Rand Jimerson said. None of them accepted his offer, so he went to the home of a black businessman where people discussed what should be done, and then he went by the church.

"He wanted to be a witness, to see what happened," Rand Jimerson said.

His father picked up two pieces of stained glass about 8 inches in diameter, and several smaller pieces. The family kept them for decades, often on the family hutch, solemn reminders of the cowardly attack that made it impossible for the nation to ignore the Civil Rights movement and that helped bring about passage of the federal Civil Rights Act of 1964.

On Sept. 9, Rand Jimerson and three of his four siblings traveled to Washington, D.C., to present the last large piece of glass to the Smithsonian National Museum of African-American History and Culture, which will open in two years.

"This family kept it as their talisman," said Bill Pretzer, the museum's senior history curator. "This became the touchstone around which these five siblings developed their moral compass."

President Obama's speech at the museum's groundbreaking last year prompted the Jimerson family to donate the glass. In his speech, Obama listed items that his daughters, Malia and Sasha, could look forward to seeing at the museum, including shards from the Birmingham church.

The museum already had 10 small pieces of church glass in its collection. The donation from the Jimersons is the largest piece, and the only one with leading.

"It creates a distinct impression of what the leaded stained-glass window would have looked like," Pretzer said.

Those pieces of glass are the only physical items from the church in the museum's collection.

The Jimersons' piece has a circle of golden glass segments encompassing a smaller circle of blue-and-green glass, which, in turn, encompasses a diamond-shape piece of golden glass - with three holes a reminder of the explosion.

The next day, Sept. 10, the Jimersons were guests at a ceremony where the four girls killed in the bombing were posthumously awarded the Congressional Gold Medal.

TENSE CHILDHOOD

Rand Jimerson was 12, the oldest Jimerson child, when the family moved to Birmingham. His mother, Melva Brooks Jimerson, wasn't excited about the move, but her husband, whose career covered social justice jobs as much as it did preaching, was determined to go.

"It took about five or six months to wear her down," Rand Jimerson said.

As a boy, Jimerson secretly thought it would be exciting if someone burned a cross on their lawn. That didn't happen, but the family was harassed constantly.

A neighbor moved away after learning what his father did for work. Several churches refused to accept the family as members. The family received death threats, and phone calls with heavy breathing on the line.

"If you take the death threats seriously, my father was putting his life on the line," Jimerson said.

In school, classmates taunted Jimerson and threw things at him.

"I would just ignore them and walk away," he said. "I didn't see anything that would be gained by fighting."

PURPOSEFUL ADULTHOOD

The family left Birmingham in 1964, but the experience had a lasting impact of them. In 2002, seven years after Jimerson's father died, the family donated the first large piece of stained glass to the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute, a museum and research center across from the 16th Street Baptist Church.

Rand Jimerson said his time in Alabama made him more conscious of social issues, and committed to the idea of working toward a better society. A history professor and the director of Western's graduate program in archives and records management, his writings reflect that commitment.

His book "The Private Civil War" focuses on people's letters and diaries to reveal the thoughts of ordinary citizens during the conflict. Another book, "Archives Power: Memory, Accountability, and Social Justice," urges archivists to preserve the history of people at all levels of society.

His newest book, a personal account called "Shattered Glass in Birmingham: My Family's Fight for Civil Rights, 1961-1964," will be published next spring.

He's working on his next book, a biography of the Rev. Robert Epperson Hughes, a civil rights leader who worked in Birmingham, Africa and the Pacific Northwest.

Hughes was director of the Alabama Council on Human Relations before Jim Jimerson took the job. Someone burned a cross on his lawn.

MORE INFORMATION

Birmingham Civil Rights Institute

Kids in Birmingham 1963 (created by Ann Jimerson, Rand's sister).

Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture

Reach Dean Kahn at 360-715-2291 or dean.kahn@bellinghamherald.com.

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