“We, who know better, created a climate for child-killing by those who don’t.” ~ Eugene Patterson, from “A Flower for the Graves”

Headache today, so I’m offering something far more profound than anything I could say. If you have never read “A Flower for the Graves” before, please take a minute now.

Journalist Eugene Patterson, a former editor for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, has died at 89. He was most well-known for his writing about the Civil Rights Movement, and his most famous column — “A Flower for the Graves” — was published in the wake the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing, which killed four little girls on September 15, 1963.Gene Patterson

A Flower for the Graves

This column by Eugene Patterson, then editor of the Atlanta Constitution, was originally published in that paper on September 16, 1963 and read aloud that evening by Walter Cronkite on the “CBS Evening News.” Patterson died Jan. 12, 2013 at the age of 89.

A Negro mother wept in the street Sunday morning in front of a Baptist Church in Birmingham. In her hand she held a shoe, one shoe, from the foot of her dead child. We hold that shoe with her.

Every one of us in the white South holds that small shoe in his hand.

It is too late to blame the sick criminals who handled the dynamite. The FBI and the police can deal with that kind. The charge against them is simple. They killed four children.

Only we can trace the truth, Southerner — you and I. We broke those children’s bodies.

We watched the stage set without staying it. We listened to the prologue unbestirred. We saw the curtain opening with disinterest. We have heard the play.

We — who go on electing politicians who heat the kettles of hate.

We — who raise no hand to silence the mean and little men who have their nigger jokes.

We — who stand aside in imagined rectitude and let the mad dogs that run in every society slide their leashes from our hand, and spring.

We — the heirs of a proud South, who protest its worth and demand it recognition — we are the ones who have ducked the difficult, skirted the uncomfortable, caviled at the challenge, resented the necessary, rationalized the unacceptable, and created the day surely when these children would die.

This is no time to load our anguish onto the murderous scapegoat who set the cap in dynamite of our own manufacture.

He didn’t know any better.

A grieving relative of one of bombing victims in Birmingham, Ala., Sept. 15, 1963 at the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church is led away after telling officers that some of his family was in the section most heavily damaged. Man just in back of him is holding a shoe found in the debris. At least four persons were known to have been killed. (AP Photo)

Somewhere in the dim and fevered recess of an evil mind he feels right now that he has been a hero. He is only guilty of murder. He thinks he has pleased us.

We, who know better, created a climate for child-killing by those who don’t.

We hold that shoe in our hand, Southerner. Let us see it straight, and look at the blood on it. Let us compare it with the unworthy speeches of Southern public men who have traduced the Negro; match it with the spectacle of shrilling children whose parents and teachers turned them free to spit epithets at small huddles of Negro school children for a week before this Sunday in Birmingham; hold up the shoe and look beyond it to the state house in Montgomery where the official attitudes of Alabama have been spoken in heat and anger.

Let us not lay the blame on some brutal fool who didn’t know any better.

We know better. We created the day. We bear the judgment. May God have mercy on the poor South that has so been led. May what has happened hasten the day when the good South, which does live and has great being, will rise to this challenge of racial understanding and common humanity, and in the full power of its unasserted courage, assert itself.

The Sunday school play at Birmingham is ended. With a weeping Negro mother, we stand in the bitter smoke and hold a shoe. If our South is ever to be what we wish it to be, we will plant a flower of nobler resolve for the South now upon these four small graves that we dug.

                   

Music by Blind Boys of Alabama, “Motherless Child”

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