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Excerpt from Oral History Interview with Modjeska Simkins, November 15, 1974. Interview G-0056-1. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) See Entire Interview >>

Racial tensions come to a head in Birmingham, Alabama, in 1946

Simkins describes her involvement with the Southern Negro Youth Conference, focusing particularly on its biannual meeting in Birmingham, Alabama, in 1946. Of special interest is Simkins' description of the opposition the Conference faced because of its effort to hold an integrated meeting. Simkins discusses the role of Bull Connor and his alliance with the Klan in thwarting the efforts of the Conference, and she explains how their tactics worked to instill fear and terror amongst Birmingham's African Americans. She reveals racial tensions and the results of those tensions in a particularly volatile environment a number of years prior to the height of the civil rights movement.

Citing this Excerpt

Oral History Interview with Modjeska Simkins, November 15, 1974. Interview G-0056-1. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) in the Southern Oral History Program Collection, Southern Historical Collection, Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Full Text of the Excerpt

JACQUELYN HALL:
How were you involved in the Southern Negro Youth Conference?
MODJESKA SIMKINS:
I was on the board.
JACQUELYN HALL:
When and where was that organized?
MODJESKA SIMKINS:
It was organized in Birmingham. A number of highly and very fine intelligent people. If that organization could have gone for five or six years, to say nothing about ten years, the South would have been a far different place. Because the youth of the country were hounded and the police would come in … I don't know if you ever heard of Bull Connor? Well, old Bull was in there even then and the Klan was in there. You see, they had this law in Alabama that the whites and blacks couldn't be meeting and … well, the same thing that took place when they had the meeting of the Southern Conference for Human Welfare. The law in Alabama at that time was and it is still on the books, but they never use it, the law was that whites and blacks couldn't be in the same meeting hall unless they were separated by physical barriers. So, we were down there at this meeting in '46 and we were to have met in the Masonic Temple, but Bull Connor scared the Master Mason and scared everybody else in the big churches and all like that, so we went to a little off-brand church and the cops came through there almost stepping on your feet and if they had, they wouldn't have cared. And they finally hauled Jim Dombrowski and Jim Davis and the minister of the church and one or two others and put them in the Birmingham jail. And then they arrested Glenn Taylor who was running for vice-president on the Henry Wallace ticket. I was standing this close to Glenn when he was arrested. And then they would walk all around the place just like they did during the peace movement in Washington and Birmingham and Montgomery. I know that one night we were at a church in Birmingham, it wasn't a rally, they were just having a meeting on Monday night, and those rascals would come out there … this church was on a corner, and they would come out there and be about six or eight abreast on motorcycles and they would line up … just like this was the street and this was the church and they would line up out here from one side of the street to the other, about eight abreast and when they would start, they would start in unison and they would go racing up that street and just to terrorize the folks, you know. And then they would come and stand in the church and walk through the church. I remember that there was a big thing down there, kind of a lunchroom …
JACQUELYN HALL:
You are talking now about …
MODJESKA SIMKINS:
Birmingham, when we had the meetings. Now, this wasn't in the sixties, this was in 1946. We were having an annual meeting, they had bi-annual meetings of the Southern Negro Youth Conference. I went down there to the meeting and after all this stuff with Bull Connor came up, I didn't go back home, I stayed down there two weeks, I believe. And that town was hot, my goodness it was hot. You might look back anytime and see that the police were walking behind or one of their stooges, pimps or something. You always felt like somebody was walking behind you. Sometimes, if a colored person wanted to say something and there were whites there, they would say, "Well, you walk down such and such a street and I'll pass by you and you can tell me …" or something like that. And they were having the NAACP membership drive there at that same time and they would just go in and jerk the membership buttons off the people, when they would see one on somebody, they would just jerk it off. They just walked all through black properties like that. And I remember one of the Sundays that I was down there, well, in fact, a bunch of us went up to Bull Connors office to say something about the way that we were treated. And as we went in, I guess that about thirteen white men were coming out as we went in …
JACQUELYN HALL:
This is in 1946?
MODJESKA SIMKINS:
Yes, this is '46. And we went on in there to see old Bull. And he gave us no satisfaction. He said, "You see those folks that just walked out of here? That's a leader from the Klan and they assured me that they would give me all the help I need." And that little church was on the edge of the public square in Birmingham and you could see them sitting all around, like a low wall around the courthouse or capitol, whatever it was. That was the type of thing that went on. So, the following Sunday, they had a meeting, some of the women had some kind of house down there … I mean, it was a place where they had some kind of a center. So, they went down there on Sunday and they had a prayer meeting. I remember, I will never forget all those women on their knees, they were terrorized to death. And they asked me to talk to them, they didn't know what to do. I said …
JACQUELYN HALL:
Were these women that were involved in the Congress or …
MODJESKA SIMKINS:
No, they were women of Birmingham and a cross section of women. Doctors' and dentists' wives and lawyers' wives and all like that. And they had this meeting and I remember that in the meeting I said, "You all will have to hold solid against this thing or you will never have any more peace in Birmingham." I remember that one of the women said, "Well, that's easy for you to say, because you will soon be gone to South Carolina, but we will be right here." I said, "That's the reason why you must hold the line." And they couldn't understand why I wasn't terror-stricken. Of course, I guess that I just never have been afraid, I just never have been like I've seen some people. But those women, they were on their knees and weeping.
JACQUELYN HALL:
Was it the Southern Negro Youth Congress that was calling down all this repression? Why were the Birmingham police and the Klan in such an uproar?
MODJESKA SIMKINS:
It's that same thing as … it had been labeled Communistic by the Un-American Activities Committee … I believe that it was a fellow named Woods who did that. And so, they were calling it Communist for the simple reason that they wanted to destroy any influence that it might have.