On the Road to DC: Birmingham, AL — We met George Rudolph, a Vietnam war veteran, at a Martin Luther King, Jr. Day celebration in Kelly Ingram Park in Birmingham, Alabama. The park is kitty corner to the 16th Street Baptist Church, where in 1963 four young African American girls died in a bomb blast planted by the KKK.
One of those killed was Addie Mae Collins, the sister of George’s wife, Sarah, who was also seriously injured. The event is considered a turning point in the Civil Rights Movement.
I walk up to George, whom I’ve never met, and ask if he’ll talk to me. His response is instantly friendly. I tell him about our ‘conversation road trip’, and ask him his thoughts on Donald Trump.
“Well…he won the electoral vote; that’s what he won. He didn’t win the popular vote. Hillary got that. [So] he might be president…but he ain’t none a’ my president.
“Man, any time you get up on a table and say you can grab a woman in her private parts…what give you the right to do that? But people still voted for him. So, my thing is, I wish him well, but he ain’t none a’ my president.
“When Obama was in there in the White House, man he had class! I ain’t never seen him all riled up, gettin’ mad or hollerin’ at somebody. This man [Trump], hell, he gonna be known for that if things don’t go his way! See, he’s used to havin’ his way. He got all that money.
George walks us toward the church, and toward a memorial sculpture called “The four spirits”—a tribute to the four girls killed in the ’63 bombing.
“You know about that church over there? Them girls got killed. One of them girls was my wife’s sister. Let me show you, I’m gonna show it to you.
He points to the statue of the girl sitting on the bench.
“That’s Addie Mae. That’s my wife’s sister right there. “
Then he points to a photograph embedded in a stone bench, also part of the memorial.
“That picture you see on the end, right here? That’s my wife. Her name’s Sarah. My wife survived that bombing. She was in the church that morning when that bomb went off and four girls got killed. She lost an eye in that bombing, but she survived it. Now she suffers with PTSD, just like I do from Vietnam.
“See, that was a powerful bomb. I was in church, I was in church on the south side, and when I heard that explosion, man, I said ‘God, no!’ And later on I thought, ‘how could anybody live through that?’ But she did; Sarah lived through it.
“There’s a lot of history down in this park. You see in this park, this is where…I don’t know if you heard of Bull Connor. He was the chief of police. He was the one that was givin’ the orders, turnin’ the dogs loose, and the fire hoses. He’s ridin’ around in a white tank, turnin’ them dogs on men.
“A lot of history here in this park, and over there in that church.
“This is a historical landmark. President just signed it, it says ‘Historical Landmark’. You are here in a historical place. If these grounds could talk…a lot of people…a lot of blood was shed here.”
I ask him what advice he has for people who disagree, to help them come together.
“Well, they’ve got to have love, see? If you ain’t got no love in your hearts… you got to have love.
“I can’t hate you for your color. You can’t hate me for my color. See, the Creator don’t look at color. He look at that heart.
“We must love each other. Until we bring that love back, this world gonna be messed up. You got to have love.”
“I got to love you. Then I got to forgive you. You see, that’s another thing. We got to have forgiveness. You hear me? You got to have forgiveness.”
“Walkin’ around hatin’ you, man…how can I hate you and say I love Him who I’ve never seen? You got to have love, that’s what’s lackin’.
“People don’t have love in their hearts. They just got hatred. All this killin’ is senseless, like right here in Birmingham…we set a record with homicide, man. People just doin’ this killin.’ And it’s wrong.
“When I went to Vietnam, I didn’t like that. I didn’t volunteer for that. The only thing I know is I got a piece of paper saying where I got to go.”
George turns away to hide his emotion.
“You see that’s another thing. What is war good for? War ain’t good for nothin’. Sendin’ some young man over there in Iraq or Afghanistan…what is the purpose? What are you accomplishing, being over there? Nothing. Then when you lose a loved one, then that family is messed up. They lost a son or daughter.
“So we got to have love, man. We got to have a whole lotta love. That’s something I think Trump is lacking. You know he got that money, and the arrogance, and he figure it’ll be his way, where he gets to say ‘you fired!’
“It’s gonna be rough, man! But I ain’t gonna look at that inauguration. I ain’t even gonna look at it. There’s a lot of hate goin’ on there. The KKK ain’t never went nowhere, but they comin’ out now, ’cause you see Trump is talkin’ their language.
“Like I say, that man’s in charge (points upwards). The president elect can’t do no more than what He let him do. ‘Cause that money can’t save him. You can’t take that money with you. That money there to help people. You can’t put it in that casket.”
Our conversation starts coming to a close, as other people call to get George’s attention.
“You say you gonna drive up there? So you gonna be there for the actual inauguration, that day, you’ll be there? That’s gonna be something to see. Well, you be careful, you and your son.”
We end the conversation with a hug, and I thank him for being so responsive to me when I walked up to talk.
“Yeah, that’s what it’s all about.”
Now, in writing up this conversation, I’m reminded of a quote from Maya Angelou:
“Have enough courage to trust love one more time and always one more time.”