“Are You Now, Have You Ever?” by Terry Barr

My question was quiet, but clear: “So what do you think today about those years in Birmingham? You know, when the Klan and the Citizens’ Council opposed integration?”

“Well, I’d have to say the Klan was right. I don’t mean right in burning houses or churches, but people had the right to shop where they wanted and to go to school where they wanted. It wasn’t the federal government’s business.”

I wasn’t interviewing a former Birmingham police official or a former Klansman. I wasn’t in someone’s office or downtown club. I was in my parents’ home, my wife and baby daughter ten feet away playing tea party, while my mother and father and this man’s wife socialized before supper. Christmas Eve supper.

These were family friends – longtime. Their daughter and I had been friends before kindergarten, since the womb even, as old photographs of our mothers sitting on our front porch, pregnant together, attest. Through the years there were many such suppers: trips to Alabama football games on fall Saturdays back in the Sixties. Back when the crowds and the teams were all white.

Their daughter and I went to public school together. We experienced the convulsions of integration, the fights, and the supposed harmony of our senior year when the Homecoming Queen was white and the School beauty contest winner was black.

Times change both more and less than you think they do.

Our senior prom was held privately at the Birmingham FOP lodge. A segregated dance at a policeman’s hall. For our first two high school reunions, though, the parties were held publicly and were integrated.

But ever since, due supposedly to the two sides disagreeing over venues, there have been separate but equal reunions, except that it’s hard to say what is equal.

Much harder now than in the Fifties when anyone could see the rundown black school and the slightly less rundown or perhaps wildly prosperous white school.

For no one on either side actually got to see the other’s reunion site, the actual locale, unknown to anyone not invited. Of course, not even all white people received invitations to “our” reunion. Only a few: the proud, the elite.

Our venue was a private home, a very fine mansion in the hills south of Birmingham. Maybe it isn’t a mansion, but it will always be three times larger than anywhere I’ll live. Amongst the reunion selection committee was the daughter of our family friends.

“Remember when she threw sand in your eyes?” my mother asks recently.

“We were only three, Mom! I’ve tried to put that behind me. I think I’ve forgiven her.”

Forgiving, forgetting. But nothing is ever quite over.


I was working on an essay about my father’s rabbi, Milton Grafman of Birmingham’s Temple Emanu-El. Rabbi Grafman was a good man. He encouraged interfaith dialogue. In a troubled time, he chose not to be an ardent Zionist. He was no racist either, yet he did not believe that Dr. King, or any outsider, should journey into Birmingham and stir things up only to leave it all behind for others to clean up. Others, like himself and the Alabama clerics who wrote a declaration advocating that changes in Birmingham be left to Birminghamians to orchestrate and administer. Their public letter provoked a response from Dr. King. The one he wrote from a Birmingham jail cell. That’s famous history.

I don’t know how many private stories of those days still exist, published or not. But our family friend had one.

A prominent Birmingham lawyer, he was involved in the negotiations between Birmingham city officials and the Kennedy White House. I don’t know exactly what he did or said back then, but he told me that times were tense, that the Kennedy delegates dispatched to Birmingham didn’t understand the local problems. I wondered aloud if anyone did.

“That’s a fair point,” he said. “But we had to live here.”

I think it’s interesting when people say things like “We had to live here.” Interesting because in those days, the Sixties and Seventies, many people left. Sometimes they moved out of specific neighborhoods and into other ones nearby. Other times they moved into neighboring counties. Suburban counties. Sometimes they moved across school district lines or into rural, county outposts.

What does “living here,” mean? Exactly where is “here?”

For instance, our lawyer friend’s family moved from the older neighborhood we lived in to a newer one in the western part of town where a newer high school was being constructed – one zoned for whiter clientele.

I got zoned to that school too, as did black kids from my side of town. By the time my friend’s daughter and I graduated, the ratio of black to white students was 60-40. Over the next decade it got worse, if by “worse” we mean more segregated. If we mean that others who “had to live here” found that they didn’t.

“It was just a difficult time,” he said. “Raising children back then – yes, I believed the Klan was right in that there should be neighborhood schools, freedom of choice.”

“Did the Klan want freedom of choice?”

“Well, yes. Meaning that we ought to be able to pick the schools we wanted our children to attend. I think you’d find back then that not only did white people want to go to school with other whites, but so did blacks. When you force people to change, to mix, then you’re asking for trouble.”


The neighborhood my parents lived in at the time of this Christmas gathering had been changing for the previous ten years. Black families had moved into the next block, and just before Christmas a black family moved in next door to my parents.

And so it was just after supper, after it seemed that all discussions of race and the past had been left in the wake of our Cornish game hen supper, that my mother turned to the lawyer’s wife, her oldest friend, and said:

“Well, they moved in last weekend.”

Her friend made no verbal response. She didn’t have to. Her face contorted into the visage of a mongrel pug, and then she shivered like you do when someone scratches her nails on an old elementary school blackboard.


My parents remained in their home, the place where my mother grew up, the house she and my Dad were married in. Married not by Rabbi Grafman, but by a Montgomery rabbi, Rabbi Blachschleger, who sent them an anniversary card for the next fourteen years until he died. Unlike Grafman, Rabbi Blachschleger believed in mixed marriages. It took a drive-by shooting in front of their house on a hot summer Sunday afternoon to get them to move. Ironically, they had become friends with the family next door.

Do times change? When change is imperceptible, is it still change?

So many of these figures are dead now. Rabbi Grafman, my Dad, Dr. King, my mother’s oldest friend. But just last weekend, my mother called her friend’s husband, the lawyer. He’s in an assisted-living home now. He has severe back problems and who knows what else.

“He was glad to hear from me,” my mother said. “I had to get his number from his daughter after she told me he wished I’d call him some time. The funny thing is, he’s always had my number. Why didn’t he call me?”

Of course, I had no idea.

“He always was strange,” my mother said then.

I agreed with her. We can hide from the past, and sometimes we can even bury it. At some point, though, we give ourselves away in a chance remark or a silent action. Or in a ringing voice that speaks of “freedom,” even if most of us will never agree about what that word meant back then, when things seemed so black and white. Or especially now, when they so clearly aren’t.