Birmingham Revisited

updated 09/12/1983 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 09/12/1983 AT 01:00 AM EDT

When the bomb exploded in the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Ala. on Sunday, Sept. 15, 1963, the face of Christ was blasted from the center of a stained-glass window. Shrapnel and hunks of stone ripped through parked cars, the blast knocked breakfasters from the tables in a nearby restaurant, and in the church's ladies' room, four black girls—Carole Robertson, Cynthia Wesley, Addie Mae Collins, all 14, and Denise McNair, 11—were crushed to death beneath an avalanche of bricks. "The bricks were piled up just like an artisan had stacked them," recalls H.D. Coke, now 72, one of the church members who searched through the rubble that day. "I pulled them up. They never knew what hit them. They were stacked on top of one another."

Twenty years ago this month, the Birmingham church bombing aroused the conscience of the nation. Coming after six months of civil-rights struggle in Birmingham—where police used dogs and high-pressure firehoses against unarmed demonstrators—it inspired the moral outrage that eventually resulted in the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964, which gave the federal government power to enforce integration. But perhaps the most profound effect of the bombing was felt in Birmingham itself. "It was the thing that started to straighten this city around," explains Richard Arrington. "Birmingham is a new place today." Arrington is the obvious symbol of that change: He is the black mayor of a city that had not a single black policeman or fireman in 1963.

But two other citizens may serve better as symbols of the "New Birmingham." In 1963 Gwen Cook, then 14, was among hundreds of black schoolchildren arrested in the Birmingham "freedom marches," while Bill Webb, then 23, was a white patrolman in the brutally racist police department that arrested her. Today Gwen Cook Webb is a Birmingham police officer—and the wife of Lt. Bill Webb. "I never thought I'd marry a police officer, a white police officer, especially one who was there in 1963," Gwen Webb says with the light of irony illuminating a wide smile. "I never dreamed that." Bill Webb never dreamed such a thing either. "It would have been a death sentence in my youth," he says, a little more somber than his wife. "A death sentence for either party."

The Webbs' story is a contemporary Romeo and Juliet tale set against the background of the Southern civil-rights revolution. Gwen Cook and Bill Webb grew up within a mile of each other but they were separated by the rigid caste system of what was known as the most segregated big city in America. Schools, hospitals, parks, restaurants and churches were strictly segregated, and Birmingham laws forbade integrated gatherings even in private homes. "Whites and blacks still walk the same streets," Harrison Salisbury wrote in the New York Times in 1960, "but the streets, the water supply and the sewer system are about the only public facilities they share." Segregation was enforced both officially, by police under the command of white supremacist Eugene "Bull" Connor, and unofficially by Klansmen and other terrorists who clubbed Freedom Riders attempting to integrate bus facilities, castrated a random black man as a warning against school integration, and bombed more than 20 Birmingham black churches and homes in a decade. "Every inch of middle ground," concluded Salisbury, "has been fragmented by the emotional dynamite of racism, reinforced by the razor, the gun, the bomb..."

In April 1963 Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. led demonstrations designed to desegregate Birmingham. After a month of marches and sit-ins—and more than 300 arrests—the ranks of adults courageous enough to defy Bull Connor had thinned. So in early May, King reluctantly called on the city's black schoolchildren to carry on the struggle. Thousands responded.

Among them was Gwen Cook, then in eighth grade. "I was so young I didn't know exactly what I was doing, but I knew it had to be done," she recalls. Singing freedom songs, she joined more than 100 students in a march from the Effie J. McCaw School into downtown Birmingham, where they were met with dogs and firehoses. "I got hosed," she recalls. "It hurt. It knocked me down. With that kind of force, it's hard to get up. But when they turned the water on somebody else, we would get up and continue to walk and sing." Gwen kept marching until she was arrested. "We were hauled into paddy wagons just like cattle. The city jails were full, and we were carried to the county fairgrounds and locked in the hog barns. It smelled awful. It didn't frighten me, it made me mad. I was too wild to be frightened, I suppose."

Gwen Webb loves to tell stories of movement days in 1963, but her husband is not so enthusiastic. "I'd rather not even think about them," says Bill Webb. Son of a Birmingham coal miner, Webb began to wonder about the morality of segregation while serving in the Army in Korea. For the first time in his life he worked and socialized with blacks and began to see them as human beings. His doubts about segregation increased after he joined the Birmingham police in 1961. He soon learned that many of his fellow officers were Klansmen, and he saw that they tolerated, even encouraged, violence against blacks. "Black life wasn't considered very valuable in those years," he says. Still, he harbored little sympathy for the civil-rights marchers of 1963. "I didn't think very highly of them at the time—a bunch of people getting out of place." Webb didn't have much contact with the demonstrators (he was on standby duty most of the time, he says), but one incident sticks in his mind. "I was standing on a corner talking to a black guy, an acquaintance, and Bull Connor drove by and said, 'Put the son of a bitch in jail.' "

After thousands of arrested demonstrators filled the city's jails, and photos of police using dogs and firehoses on blacks shocked the world, Birmingham's business leaders signed an integration agreement with Dr. King. The next night, after a Klan rally, bombs ripped through the Gaston Motel, where King had been living, and the home of his brother, the Rev. A.D. King. Living half a mile from A.D. King, Gwen Cook felt the explosion rattle her windows and she hurried to the scene. "The front of the house was totally demolished," she remembers. "If the bedrooms had not been in the rear of the house, the family would have been killed. It was a miracle. Rev. King walked out and said his family was fine, and we should go home and pray and not counteract violence with violence. Those are things I never will forget."

Nor will Bill Webb forget that night. He was off duty but was summoned to help suppress the rioting that had erupted among enraged blacks at the Gaston Motel. "It looked like a bombed-out village in Korea, with several houses and several stores burned," he says. "It was a real war for a while, a very bitter war."

The worst atrocity in that war came four months later—the Sixteenth Street church bombing. "I was in bed," recalls Bill Webb. "I had just gotten home from work. My dad woke me up and told me." Webb had recently guarded that church, which was a center of civil-rights activity, and a grim thought hit him: "Not everybody guarding those places was really interested in guarding them." He was shaken. "It affected me. It still does. I don't know if you notice it or not, but it still chokes me up to think about it."

Across Birmingham, other whites shared Bill Webb's horror. "The bombing really shamed white people in this city," he says. "Outlooks began to change. People began to say, 'We can't have this.' " Claude Wesley, now 76, father of one of the Sixteenth Street victims, remembers how things changed after the bombing. "I noticed the 'white' and 'colored' signs were coming down. I noticed the eating places opened up to everybody. I noticed people getting jobs they never had before. I don't think it was just the bombing—that's too absolute—but I think the bombing played a major role."

Change came gradually and sometimes grudgingly to Birmingham, but it came. An integrated committee began to meet every Monday morning to work out racial problems—and it meets every Monday to this day. Restaurants and schools were slowly integrated. The city began to hire blacks in non-menial jobs. In the late 1960s, attorney Arthur Shores, whose home was bombed twice in 1963, became the first black elected to the City Council. In 1973 Chris McNair, father of the youngest Sixteenth Street victim, was elected to the Alabama Legislature. In 1977 ex-Klansman Robert Chambliss was arrested and convicted of bombing the church, 14 long years after the event. And in 1979 Arrington became the city's first black mayor. Birmingham still has its share of problems—many caused by the collapse of its main industry, steel—but the transformation of race relations is plain. "We haven't done nearly all that we should do, that we will do," says Arrington, "but we're moving."

By the mid-1970s the change had affected Gwen Cook. Divorced and supporting a daughter as a hospital technician, she saw an advertisement for the police department entrance exam. Despite her previous experience with the police, she began to see the job as a challenge. "My friends pushed me. They said, 'Take it, Gwen, you can pass it.' " She took their advice and fulfilled their prediction, becoming the city's second black female cop. Some of her colleagues teased her with racist jokes. "I cut them off," she says. "You have to let them know where you're coming from right from the beginning." But other cops were more kind—among them her boss, Bill Webb. Working together in the "Business Services" division, chasing bad-check artists and credit-card thieves, they were soon comfortable enough to trade jibes about their backgrounds. "He joked with me. He said, 'I'm one of the ones who sprayed you with the firehoses.' Sometimes," she laughs, "I wonder if he was."

Gradually their friendship blossomed into romance. "He chased me, and I decided to slow down and let him catch me," she says. To their surprise, when they began dating they encountered very little hostility in a city that was segregated only 15 years earlier. "We've never encountered any problems in any restaurant in Birmingham," Bill says. "It speaks well for the city."

They did run into problems when they got married in 1979. Some of their relatives were less than enthusiastic about the marriage, and so were some of their police colleagues: The couple received late-night obscene phone calls from people Bill recognized as fellow cops. And then the Webbs found themselves transferred to an unappealing new post—the city jail. "We were incarcerated there for a year and a day," Gwen jokes. Even that odious duty failed to suppress Gwen's high spirits and Bill's wry wit. Soon the couple had made some unlikely friends among the prisoners. "We had a number of old drunks in the jail," Gwen says, "and they told Bill: 'If you ever mistreat her...' And these were old white drunks!"

Today the Webbs are out of jail and they're working together as the Mayor's security force. They live with Gwen's daughter Theressa, 16, in a predominately black neighborhood in Birmingham, and they are active in church and community groups and in the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. "I can look back and be quite thankful that I was part of the movement simply because if it were not for the demonstrations in 1963, I probably wouldn't be in the position I'm in today," she says. "And the Mayor probably wouldn't be there either. We're not living in a dream world thinking there are no bigots left in Birmingham, but bigotry doesn't affect us."

With racial tensions eased in Birmingham, they enjoy speculating on how the late Bull Connor would react if he visited his old police force and met them. "He'd probably go out and find his lynch mob within the police department and hang us," Gwen says with a laugh.

Now the Webbs are contemplating something certain to set Old Bull spinning in his grave—making a baby. "We'd like to have one or two, hopefully two," says Gwen.

"One," says Bill.

"No, two. Just two."

"At 44," says Bill, grinning, "I think one would be quite sufficient."

"Twins and triplets run in my family," says Gwen, now 34, her eyes lit with mischief. "So I hope all we have is two."

Her husband groans theatrically.

"I wonder what a child of ours would be like," Gwen muses. "I think he'd be a pretty good child." And then the former civil-rights marcher looks at the Birmingham cop and smiles. "I'd like him to be like Bill."

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