A Tale of Untold Stories

SUSI Group photo with Barnett Wright

Journalism is the “first rough draft of history.”

Phillip L. Graham

This is the beginning of our last week of our SUSI program. Our last Monday together in the US. By now, we should have mastered the art of being under the American sun (although we have not!), trained first by the feverish desert blaze in Arizona, then by the golden glow of L.A. beaches, now by the sticky heat of Alabama. So many diverse weathers, colors, flavors and accents we have experienced in the past 36 days through the U.S. From the “Valley of the Sun” to the “Magic City,” we have just one more stop left before going back home. 

As I am writing my last entry in this blog, I think how lucky we are for having our story told by ourselves. A 17-handed-tale to be reread long after the trip has ended. Here in Alabama, we have been constantly thinking about the power of narratives to build history, to shape memories. What is not told is almost as if it had not existed, and the streets of this city of Birmingham are full of tales urging to be released. 

Despite being the heart of the Civil Rights Movement, Alabama kept many of its stories unsung, mainly because local newspapers did not acknowledge all the ferment simmering in Birmingham and other cities, as Barnett Wright, editor of The Birmingham Times, said. 

Birmingham Times editor Barnett Wright

One of these untold stories of dignity and resistance is Charles Billup’s, who was associate pastor at the New Pilgrim Baptist Church and worked closely with Martin Luther King. He organized protests and demonstrations in which hundreds of people, including little children, confronted segregationist public officers by kneeling and praying. Charles Billup was a victim of race hatred and ferocious aggressions, but he decided to keep resentment away. His daughter Hellen inherited from him a profound message of love and forgiveness that has accompanied her entire life.

For more than 50 years she kept silent about her father’s story, afraid of retaliation if people know who she was. It was only in 2013 that she decided to share publicly her memories, moved by a photograph of her father that appeared on the book 1963: How the Birmingham Civil Rights Movement Changed the World, written by Barnett Wright. Seeing her father on the cover of the book, defying a policeman in silence along with a long line of people kneeling, was just too powerful for Hellen. Her fathers’ story needed to be told and known

1963 book cover with Charles Billup and other kneeling protestors

By sharing stories like Billup’s, The Birmingham Times is not just bringing a more accurate view of history, but also contributing to creating a stronger community. Ultimately, local newspapers have been largely acknowledged to create and reinforce identity. The state’s oldest African American newspaper was founded in 1964 with the intention to serve its community, provide a mean to disseminate their stories, and to better understand who they are, where they come from, and even the colors of the town where they live, by documenting the murals that can be found all over Birmingham.

In a city like Birmingham, where more than 71% of the people identify as African American or Black, stories need to be told from diverse perspectives. But that only confirms an idea that can be felt since the first minute one enters this country. Our stay in Arizona–one of the states with the largest Native American population–and our trip to California–one of the states with the largest Hispanic population–have made us aware of that all of America’s stories need to be written by a multiplicity of hands. Just like our blog is. 

Scholars during the Q&A with Barnett Wright