Washington Post reporter David Montgomery follows Michele Norris as she returns to Birmingham for the first time since publishing a family memoir that celebrates family ties and explores family secrets . Norris discovers things about her family’s deep-rooted history that she could have never imagined. Full story and Photo gallery.
All things reconsidered: NPR’s Michele Norris tells her family’s complete story
By David Montgomery
Wednesday, October 6, 2010
BIRMINGHAM, ALA. — On summer visits in the late 1960s, Michele Norris used to step down these sidewalks in a starchy pinafore, lace socks and patent leather shoes. Her little fist would be buried in the big mitt of Grandpa Belvin Norris Sr., a former steelworker, who put on his best black suit for these errands downtown.
The girl from Minnesota, not yet 11, was raised to feel safe and special. Her father, Belvin Jr., a postal worker, had left Birmingham in 1946, part of the great migration north. She was sheltered but not unaware. She knew about the fire hoses and police dogs turned on the civil rights marchers around the park in 1963. And the dynamite planted outside the church that took the lives of the four girls, whose names she was instructed to remember in prayer at dinnertime.
What the child couldn’t know is how, sometimes, there are wounds within wounds. And sometimes, silence is the only salve for that kind of trauma. Say nothing, bury the secret — for your own good, the good of the children, the good of the race.
Silence, though, will shatter.
The other day, Norris, 49 — who grew up to become a newspaper reporter (including a stint at The Washington Post), television correspondent and now co-host of NPR’s “All Things Considered” — is strolling the same sidewalks, dressed in black slacks and a black vest over a purple sweater, against the first feint of fall.
A few blocks away are Kelly Ingram Park, with its statues of police dogs and fire hoses, and the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church, long since repaired from the bombing. This area is what Birmingham now calls its Civil Rights District, a tourist attraction and history lesson.
Norris turns the corner of Fourth Avenue and 18th Street. She stops in front of a century-old six-story tan brick office building that never made the textbooks. The Pythian Temple. She steels herself to enter, then walks 10 paces on a drab blue carpet from the front door to the elevator.
Only recently has she pieced together what happened here on the night of Feb. 7, 1946.
“You stand here and you imagine how loud a gunshot would be,” she says. “His blood would have been on the floor.”
She pauses a long minute. Dabs at the tears appearing on her cheek.
“Whatever happened here didn’t define my dad,” she says.
She knows, now. The secrets and the silence are hers to manage — a post-civil-rights mom with a duty to both the past and the future. <more>
Michele Norris is the host of NPR’s All Things Considered and the author of The Grace of Silence.