This is part one of a series about Birmingham, Alabama.
Are there places in the world about which you have very real images and feelings although you have never been there?
Such were my reflections recently about Birmingham, Alabama. Nicknamed "The Magic City," it is the largest in Alabama. Today it is a leading banking and bio-technology center, a major medical and research hub, with beautiful parks, dynamic museums, a renowned ballet company, opera, and symphony, home to numerous cultural festivals, and a rich nightlife with a very popular music scene.
Of course, as is true of anywhere, Birmingham has many other sides to its texture, demographics, population, and history. As I was reminded by many while I was there, this modern city is also a core part of the fundamentalist Bible Belt. Juxtapose that with my memories from the 50s and 60s of Birmingham as "The Tragic City" and a center of the civil rights struggle for African-Americans.
I vividly remember the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. and so many other courageous freedom fighters engaged in nonviolent protests and demanded their right to humanity, equality, and dignity. I can never forget the hate, brutality, and ferocity of the white supremacist Eugene "Bull" Connor and his henchmen attacking the peaceful civil rights marchers with whips, fire hoses, and vicious dogs.
It seems like only yesterday that four African-American girls were killed on September 15, 1963 by a bomb planted by members of the Ku Klux Klan at the 16th Street Baptist Church. In fact, I went to that church during my recent Birmingham visit. It is truly beautiful and I have always been drawn to this haunting place through faded photographs and grainy TV images.
That place and that incident of death and destruction by racist terrorists in 1963 affected me greatly at the time and always stayed with me. I was 12 years old, about the ages of the girls who died, and I could not quite grasp how anyone could hate that deeply, hate so clear, vicious, raw, and ingrained as to attack a house of worship and peace, and kill young girls with their whole lives ahead of them. I am not sure I completely grasp it today.
Little did I know, in my own youth and innocence of 1963, that I would later enter a profession where I dealt daily with both compassion for the lives and health of women and vitriol by anti-choice protesters. Their view of God, society, sexuality, and women is so twisted, so distorted, and so one-dimensional that they would — and some do — kill in the name of life and in the name of God.
Back in 1963, I also could never have predicted that in the course of my role as executive director of Aradia Women's Health Center in Seattle, I would later meet, and eventually become close friends with, another victim of a different kind of bombing: Emily Lyons. This time the attack was perpetrated by a different type of terrorist: the anti-choice, anti-woman religious extremist who, like the KKK in times past, also sets bombs meant to cause fear, death, destruction, and severe injury.
Actually, Emily Lyons is a true survivor and her passion, dedication, strength, and courage are unlike anyone's. She is my hero. I am always inspired by her Southern wit and quiet charm and her amazing ability to take back her own life in spite of the extensive injuries suffered at the hands of one hateful Eric Rudolph, whose bombing of the New Woman All Women's Health Clinic (NWAWC) on January 29, 1998 changed her life forever. As it did so many others, including mine.
The incomprehensibly vicious attack on Emily brought back my childhood memories of Birmingham, which during the terrorist attacks against racial equality of the civil rights era had become known for a time as "Bombingham." In 1998, a different kind of "Bombingham" emerged once again in "The Magic City." A nail-filled bomb meant to destroy, kill, and maim blasted off part of the front of the building that houses NWAWC, and shattered the front door. As if that was not enough, far more terrifying and devastating, it did succeed in killing Robert "Sandy" Sanderson, an off-duty police officer who was the clinic's security guard. It also very seriously injured Emily, the director of nursing, who since then has endured twenty-two surgeries, is blind in one eye, has scars on many parts of her body, and still has shrapnel in her body. But her indomitable spirit and dignity are not scarred. As outlined in her moving book "Life's Been A Blast: The Inspiring Story of Birmingham Bombing Survivor Emily Lyons", she has persevered and has learned to move forward and live a full life.
Her devoted husband Jeff, the co-author of their incredible story, has been by her side every inch of the way through Emily's perilous journey of recovery. When you are in the presence of these two individuals, their very accessibility, openness, generosity, and thoughtfulness are extraordinary. They have been though pure living hell, an ongoing nightmare of pain and suffering, and yet emerged stronger, smarter, and more committed than ever to women's lives, choices, and dignity. They are passionately in love, have interesting lives filled with good work, family, and protective animals, and are not consumed by bitterness. They certainly were not been deterred by the violent words, bigotry, and the hate of Operation Save America (OSA) that recently descended on their city from July 14-22nd in an attempt to close down Birmingham's two remaining women's clinics that perform abortions.
As I was preparing to go to Birmingham, I thought on what would see and learn. I knew that the resolve of Emily and Jeff would be strong. I also knew that Alabama NOW, Birmingham NOW and numerous other local and national organizations were effectively mobilizing to protect the clinics, staff, and clients from the distorted ravings and destructive actions of Flip Benham, Operation Save America's leader, and his misguided extremist followers. And I thought back to OSA/Operation Rescue (their original name) and their mobilizations over the years. Fortunately, they are much smaller in numbers now than in years past.
I recall when Operation Rescue (OR) was first getting started in 1988 with their disruptive and sexist national actions of blockading clinics to attempt to stop women from getting abortions. On one occasion during a blockade we had positioned a 15 foot ladder on the side of the building of Aradia Women's Health Center so that women could climb up to a second story window to get into the clinic, as OR had completely blocked the front entrance! The determination of women to do what they believe they must do regarding their pregnancies and the future of their lives has never ceased to amaze me. Imagine, in a country where abortion is legal, needing to dodge anti-choice protestors and climb a ladder through a second story window to get into the clinic where you will receive safe abortion care. It was outrageous then … and it remains so. And we are still doing things like this today…
I have the deepest respect for the power and strength of women. I also knew that OSA would try to be as disruptive as possible in front of Birmingham's two remaining clinics and I geared up for my visit there. (See Andrea Lynch's powerful blog.) I knew that the clinics would undoubtedly stay open, but it would not be simple or easy.
Stay tuned for the second part of Birmingham Blues.