"Six Notes": History and Memory in Poetic and Musical Commemorations of the Violence in Birmingham on September 15, 1963 Public Deposited

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  • February 26, 2019
  • Newman, Irene Adair
    • Affiliation: College of Arts and Sciences, Department of American Studies
  • This thesis will explore poetry and songs that commemorate the deaths of Collins, Robertson, McNair, Wesley, Ware, and Robinson between 1963 and 2013. Commemorations of the violence in Birmingham on September 16, 1963 include sculpture, songs, novels, and poetry; and they exist both in a mainstream American historical narrative and narratives of memory and history specific to African-American communities. The Birmingham Civil Rights Institute contains an exhibition dedicated to the bombing, and the Newseum and the Smithsonian Museum of American History, both located in Washington, DC, curated a variety of exhibits to commemorate the bombing of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church for the 50th anniversary of the event. The violence of September 15, 1963 has been commemorated in memoirs like Anne Moody’s Coming of Age in Mississippi and novels such as Sena Naslund’s Four Spirits, Christopher Paul Curtis’s The Watsons Go to Birmingham—1963, Anthony Grooms’s Bombingham, and Toni Morrison’s Song of Soloman. Visual artists have memorialized the murders with endeavors such as decorative plaques installed in Birmingham City Hall, a stained glass window commissioned by a Welsh church and installed in the Sixteenth Street Baptist church, John Henry Waddell’s sculpture, “That Which Might Have Been, Birmingham, 1963,” and the recently installed “Four Spirits” statue in Kelly Ingram Park. This thesis will focus on commemorations through poetry and song. Songs were a vital part of the Civil Rights Movement; marchers chanted protest songs and singers performed at gatherings such as the March on Washington. Poets wrote poems that preserved the memory of those who died in attacks of hate motivated violence, chronicled life in Jim Crow America, motivated protestors and called Americans to action. Songs and poems tend to take less time to produce than novels, and so better reflect changing trends in narratives and perspectives. While novels also have to pass the approval of a publishing company, the artist can disseminate songs and poems throughout a community, or a nation, themselves. The creation of the Broadside Press allowed activists to spread their message of revolution without adapting their work to pass through the filter of a corporate publishing company. Home publishing also provided a way for African-American poets to share their work, as many well-known and established publishing companies would only publish the work of white authors. Just as novels must pass through a certain degree of censorship, public visual commemoration through sculpture and memorial is political in nature and requires the artist to filter their work and bend to the desires of the commissioning agency or state. Because of the political and social limits placed on novels and sculpture, this thesis will focus on poetry and songs as a means of exploring the impact of commemoration on history and memory. The careful examination of these commemorations will hopefully lead to a greater understanding as to why there is a disparity between commemorations of these youths, and why the tragic stories of Johnny Robinson and Virgil Ware have faded from the mainstream American narrative of the Civil Rights Movement and American history.
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  • In Copyright
  • Funding: Frances Ferris Hall Fund, Center for the Study of the American South
  • Gwin, Minrose
  • Bachelor of Arts
Honors level
  • Highest Honors
Degree granting institution
  • University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
  • 77 p.

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