My mother had a religious awaking in 1954. I was five and a half years old and we lived in a two-story Church in Powderly Alabama. Daddy also had a religious awakening. He had gotten hurt while working in the TCI mines, so it was almost as if they had both received divine revelations from God almighty. Daddy was a world war Two Navy Veteran and he was not afraid of any kind of confrontation and in fact he often said that when he preached at the Farmers market there was always someone who wanted to shut him up with violence. But, he said, “there was always someone nearby who wanted him to “keep preaching the gospel” and they would confront the confronter. You might say that daddy was a religious agitator. He often took my sister who was six years old to sing during the preaching services at the Farmers Market. As Daddy played the guitar, my sister would sing and the farmers would toss silver coins into her little purse as she stood among the water melons and peaches. When Daddy and my sister returned to the church, she and I would sit in the church pews and count those silver coins. Then Daddy would announce during the next church service that the money my sister had collected would be placed in the offering plate to buy groceries for the poor and the elderly shut ins. I can remember how I use to help daddy count the number of vegetables soup cans and sacks of rice and beans that were collected by the church members. After the surplus was distributed to the poor Daddy would go into the jails in Bessemer and Birmingham and preach and console the inmates who were fresh off the Alabama chain gangs of the 1950s eras. We were always short of money due to Daddy and Mother’s religious convictions. They said that the Lord would provide but to make ends meet Daddy started selling produce door to door. I would go along with him as he peddled Jesus Christ and water melons.
There was always a power struggle between my mother and daddy. When two immovable object collide, the tension builds until one or both are destroyed. Mother’s brother, my uncle Robert, joined the Marines when he was sixteen years old by lying about his age. He survived some of the most vicious fighting on Guadalcanal. When he returned from the war he spent the rest of his days in and out of the Veteran’s mental hospital in Tuscaloosa Alabama. Mother witnessed the horror replays that her brother displayed after his return from the war. Often, she would find her brother writhing on the floor screaming bloody murder that some Banzai son of a bitch was going to kill him. Mother became as tough as her brother.
Daddy’s job in the Navy was to carry the marines up to the beaches. He said that those marines would give the sailors anything of value that they owned like money, watches or rings before they landed on the beach because they knew that they were about to die. He pitted and admired mother’s brother. Mother and Daddy were like two pawns in Gods holy chess game. Each with their own agenda for world salvation. Daddy had big time plans for the two-story church to be a beacon of gospel salvation. He pictured himself as the good shepherd searching for the lost lamb. Mother, on the other hand, believed that God had given her the ability to judge society’s sins and bring sinners to judgment. Both were ministers in that respect.
In 1953 the race was on for who could convert the most sinners. Daddy took his guitar and my sister to the farmer’s market while mother taught my brother Tommy and I to sing the gospel. We practiced for hours each day. Mother’s favorite song for me was “When John came Preaching” and “I’ll Fly away someday” I was about a year older than Tommy so I soloed “When john came preaching” and both Tommy and I sang together “I’ll fly away Someday”. By 1954 we became quite good for preschoolers at singing those songs. Mother was in a race to keep up with the Jones, in this case her husband, for the number of souls they could save. Mother became very religious. She no longer put on lipstick, dressed plainly and she constantly complained about back sliders in the church. Those who were true believers on Sunday but sinned on the other six days of the week. Or who dropped out of the church altogether. Mother had started down the suffering road. Some would consider her fate was one that was worse than death. The biblical Martyrs could not come close to her life time of suffering. But all of that was in the future. Now she was full of Religious zeal, fire and brim stone and the biblical knowledge that America society was headed for disaster.
In the late 1940’s and early 1950’s, several gospel radio stations began broadcasting around Bessemer and Birmingham. The most prominent among these was the one on Nineteenth street in downtown Birmingham,
They had moved there from Bessemer due to the Ku Klux Klan blowing up the antenna when they were broadcasting in Bessemer in 1949. The last thing the Klan needed was someone telling them the wages of sin over the air waves. Mother announced that she was going to take Tommy and me down to the radio station to sing in Brother Frank Johnson’s gospel radio program. Daddy warned mother not to go down there because of the many dangers that were lurking around the controversial radio station. They had a very heated argument about her plans. He was afraid for our safety but the word fear was not in Mother’s vocabulary.
Somehow, she managed to get up enough money for the one-way bus fare down to the radio station. She said that he lord would provide for the return trip. Near the two-story church was a bus stop. You could tell it was a bus stop because there was a yellow circle painted around a telephone post. When the Bus stopped to pick us up we climbed on board and mother placed the money in the box next to the driver. We sat down on a seat that was in front of the sign designated for “Whites” and the bus headed down the hill towards Birmingham. As I looked out the window I noticed the tar paper that covered the outside walls of the shacks that the workers at the Belcher Lumber Yard lived in. The Belcher Lumber Yard covered thousands of square acres of row after row of stacked lumber. It was just down the hill from the Two-story church. The Bus drove over the railroad tracks and headed towards west end. There were two bus lines that serviced Powderly during those years. The line that came by the two-story church carried you to west end and then you had to transfer to the street car that would carry you the rest of the way into downtown Birmingham. The other line was a direct bus ride all the way back to Powderly without the transfer to the street car. I was amazed at the overhead high tension wires that were high over the rails that carried the street cars. And the hustle and bustle of the people walking along the downtown streets was beyond my limited comprehension. Mother said that those sinners need to find Jesus and she said it so that everyone in the street car could hear and understand.
We got off the street car on third avenue north and 19th street and walked up 19th street the two blocks past fourth avenue to the door of the radio station. When we went inside, Brother Frank Johnson told the radio audience that they were in for some good gospel singing because Sister Margaret Eleanor Sellers Aldridge had brought her two beautiful little boys to sing some old-time gospel music. He told the audience about how mother’s brother Robert had gone into the marines at the age of sixteen and fought at Guadalcanal and how she and her husband had started the two-story church in Powderly and how happy that he was that she had travelled by bus and street car to come down town with her two wonderful little boys to sing on his gospel radio program. So, I sang “When John came Preaching” and then Tommy and I sang “I’ll Fly away someday”. Brother Frank Johnson said “That’s wonderful” He said that it just made his heart good to know that the next generation of Christians were going to be such great ambassadors for Christ.
After our singing was over Mother, Tommy and I went back out the door on to 19th street. I will always remember how mother bragged to the people on 19th street about how her two boys were singing testimonials for Christ. We walked up to fifth Avenue and on the corner of 19thstreet and Fifth avenue north Mother started speaking in “tongues” and preaching the gospel. She told the bewildered shoppers that the people of Birmingham Alabama were about to be cast into the bottomless pit and be burnt with hell fire if they did not stop with their sinful ways. God is going to destroy this city with a revolution that would end in total annihilation of the sinners who refused to follow in Jesus’s foot steps to the cross.
She said that today God was going to start a revolution that would be started by her first-born son, Larry Wayne Aldridge. And, that this revolution would transform this country into a God-fearing nation. She said that after this transformation had occurred people would live in peace for seventy-five years. As long as my son Larry Wayne was alive there would be peace, she said. But, after those seventy-five years were over there would be a great revolution that would tear this country apart. People will beg for mercy but no mercy would be found among the ashes. A crowd of people had gathered to listen to mother’s dire warnings. Then things got interesting. Almost like the parting of the red sea, a beautiful couple stepped through the crowd. It was almost supernatural the way those two-people passed through that crowd. The man told mother that they wanted to donate to her ministry. The Immaculate lady got several silver dollars out of her purse and gave them to mother. I would venture to say that those two-people glowed with a supernatural light. The crowd became silent. The traffic noise was drowned out and all that I could see was that couple standing there talking to my mother. The silver dollars were so shinny that it was hard to look at them due to the bright light. Then the couple just seemed to disappear. Maybe I just did not see the way they went but suddenly, they were gone. Go figure.
After the benediction prayer mother took Tommy by his left hand and me by my right and we walked toward the bus stop on third avenue north. Soon, a green bus pulled up to the bus stop. We stood in line as the travelers got ready to get on board. Again, mother dropped the bus fare into the square box that was beside the bus driver. I could still see the silver coins that the couple had donated shine as they slid down the hole that held the bus fare cash. Then we headed back to our seats in front of the “White” sign. There were two rows of seats on each side of the bus. Mother and Tommy sat on one side and I sat across the aisle next to the window. The Buses during that period did not have air conditioners. I looked out of the open window at the huge skyscrapers buildings that loomed overhead. The Bus was very crowded. I held my head out of the window to get some fresh air.
During those days, the black and white races were separate in almost all aspects of their existence, So, if a black man or woman wanted to ride the bus they would go into the front of the bus, pay the fare and then walk around to the back door and go through the back door. Then he or she would sit in the “colored section seating”. The bus was full of both white and black riders. Mother had chosen the seats that were about two seats in front of the “Whites” sign. The bus driver pulled out on to third avenue and headed west towards west end. Third avenue eventually merges with fifth avenue about where Elyton Village starts. Soon, we were past all the projects and I started getting thirsty due to the singing at the radio station. Looking out the open window I spat a big ball of spit. I could hear mother explaining the finer points of the book of revelations. I spat twice more. Suddenly, a deep voice from the back of the bus bellowed out, “Tell that little white boy to stop spitting out of the window”! “The spit is coming back through my window”. I will never forget what he said next. “When I get back to Montgomery I am going to complain to the NAACP about having to sit on the back seats where little white boys can spit on you from the front of the bus”. Mother immediately told me to stop spiting and came over and pulled the window up. The bus driver did not say anything about what the black man said but he just kept on driving. Mother got on her knees in the aisle of the bus and started to prey that we would arrive peacefully back at the two-story church. I looked back at the man and he was pointing a finger at me and he said that if I was his child he would teach me better manners. The longer we traveled the angrier he got. You would have thought that I had shot the Pope or something, the other people on the bus were getting agitated and true to daddy’s philosophy the white people on the bus came to my defense. One man told the black man with spit on his face to shut up because the little boy did not know that the spit would come back through the window. But, still the man complained all the way to west end. I was very relieved when he got off the Bus muttering to himself to “Just wait until I get back to Montgomery”
Segregation was the law of the land in 1954 and it extended to all aspects of social life. The reasons for this attitude and laws are many. Even today there is a movement in Israel to have separate seating on the buses to keep the Palestinian and Israelites separated. They want this for “security” reasons due to the high number of murders and terrorist attacks that are seemly daily occurrences over there. In South Africa, they had separate buses for the races assumeuingly for the same reasons. I must ask myself if these were the reasons for the separate but not very equal laws back in the 40s, and 50s? Would there have been mass killings or civil unrest had the laws not been implemented? Certainly, there were more than a few race riots throughout the history of the united states. And, there was a cultural divide. You did not see many white men walking around with ear rings and orange and purple hair before the anti-segregation laws were passed. Bull Conner (who was running for governor that year) and his supporters could have feared integration on these grounds alone. Then there are the Racial laws of the Nazis and their 1930s and 40s purification activities. The racial laws of society were shaped by many global historical precedences.
There were many forces at work that produced the set of attitudes and circumstances for these laws. There must have been terror in the minds of many in the black community that the possibility of mass murder would have been the results of any mass civil disturbance against the laws. How else can one explain why they did not revolt or join for armed insurrection.
This is a true story that happened to me when I was a child in 1954 in Birmingham. As I look back at this episode in my life I wonder if there were some super natural elements at work which seems to be the case on so many other occasions in my life. I wonder if the couple in the story were angels or Jesus and Marry sent by God to plant the seeds of peaceful civil disobedience and the start of the civil rights movement. Just a year later is when Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat in Montgomery. She was part of the NAACP chapter in Montgomery Alabama in 1954. Perhaps this incident was the straw that broke the camel’s back and it made her make her decision in 1955 not to give up her seat. One way to find out would be to go through the NAACP records in Montgomery and Birmingham to see if there is a record of complaints about people being spit on from the open window of a west bound bus in Birmingham in 1954. One scenario would be for the man who was on the receiving end of the spit ball could have told someone who told someone who told someone and soon the spitball grows and grows until it turns into something much more sinister. In either case Rosa Parks stated that she was not too tired to stand and give her seat up but she was tired of the humiliation and giving in to an unjust system.
The next question I have about this episode in my life was the reward that my mother received for being a spokesman for God and pointing out the injustices and evil ways that were occurring during that turbulent period. She and I had quite a few more adventures together before she was silenced and sent to the Bryce Asylum for the insane in Tuscaloosa Alabama. From 1956 until she died in 2006 she was in Bryce except for when Judge Frank Johnson kicked all the life time inmates out onto the streets of Birmingham. Not long after that she was hit by a car, had her leg amputated and sent back to Bryce where she lost all her eye sight and was totally blind. Finally, they closed Bryce and Mother was placed in a nursing home near the salvation army building in north Birmingham. Once my sister and I got her out of the nursing home and took her for a ride in my car. I was going to put a seat belt on her and she said to not put it on her because “It feels to much like a strait jacket”. In my opinion she was a Martyr and a saint. And what about her prediction of seventy-five years of peace before a revolution that “will tear this country apart”? Perhaps we have until 2029 to see if that prediction come true. We shall see said the bind woman.
She died being fed with a tube in her stomach by what the doctors said was a failure to thrive. There were literally millions of dollars paid out for her care over her fifty years of incarceration to the doctors and “Screwed up Nurses” as mother use to call them. But, the only officials from the medical community who showed up for her funeral were several older black nurses from the Nursing home. The last song that she wanted me to sing for her was “Jesus Loves Me”. After I sang it for her she said,” Now sing it in Chinese”.