Wednesday, February 12, 2014


          At an outdoor table beside the Civil Rights Institute sat a man with his cane. This man, whose name was Sylvester and whose words I could barely hear over the intruding sound of passing traffic, is a family man with a toothless grin and a quiet soul. His story is simple yet boasts more resonance than he realizes, especially to the two college students that had the privilege to speak with him that day.

          Sylvester, born in Birmingham in 1944, took more convincing to open up compared to those we had talked to in the past. He spoke with a hesitance that exposed the walls he had built throughout his seventy years of valleys and mountaintops. 

          “You know about the ghettos, you’ve seen them. They’re rough.” He spoke briefly about his upbringing, informing us that he had been raised by his mother and grandmother in parts of Birmingham that often made him question his safety, “but the good Lord pulled me through.”

          He began working at the age of fourteen as a dishwasher in a nearby cafeteria, graduated high school, and initially went into the construction business. In the following years he also worked in a foundry and as a truck driver hauling dynamite.

          Growing up in Birmingham during the civil rights movement was a feat that didn’t register to Sylvester as particularly interesting, just a part of his life that he felt like he could do nothing about. He was nineteen years old and living just around the corner from the 16th Street Baptist Church when the explosion occurred that killed four young African-American girls.

          He remembers the peaceful protestors parading by his house, but he never marched with them. He remembers the civil rights leaders speaking optimistically about the years to come, but he never attended a rally. He remembers the hope of his people for the years to come, but at the time he was uncertain if change would ever happen. Like so many, he recalls this as a time of hoping for the best and staying out of dangers way.

          Despite the chronic discrimination in his daily life, Sylvester held no hostility toward white people during this time.

          “They were humans just like I was,” he stated confidently, as if that was the obvious mindset to have. “I don’t care if they’re black, white, purple, or orange, they are all the same.”

          He spoke optimistically about the progress that he has seen take place within his lifetime, saying that it is truly amazing how far we have come and how thankful he is to be able to witness it. He does note, however, that there is still a ways to go and he hopes to be able to witness the next steps as well.

          Sylvester’s first priority and favorite subject was his family. He has one daughter, who works in Birmingham as a kindergarten teacher, and three grandchildren that he spoke fondly of.

          Perhaps the first true smile that I got out of Sylvester that day was when he was able to talk about his eleven-year-old great-grandson. His face lit up as he told me about being able to spend time with him, although it’s not as often as he would like due to his lack of transportation. He told me that if his great grandson grows up to know one thing, he hopes it is his heritage and the importance of where he came from.

          Sylvester stopped working at the age of 62 after not being able to find steady employment and being held back by his decreasing mobility. On the day I spoke to him, he hoped to get his own apartment in the following days and be on his way back to being independent.

          With his eyes looking into the distance and his mind looking back onto his past, Sylvester stated, “The good Lord has helped me survive, and that’s the best part.”

          At an outdoor table beside the Civil Rights Institute sat a man with his cane, humbled by his own history and hopeful for the future of those he will leave behind.

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