Decades before Randall Jimerson became director of Western's graduate program in archives management, his family treasured a piece of civil rights history
Story by Hilary Parker
Families define themselves in myriad ways: by their faith, by their common likes, by their shared experiences. Sometimes one event becomes the thread that binds a family’s story together, profoundly shaping the stories to come.
For Western History Professor Randall Jimerson’s family, it all started with shards of stained glass.
The story of the stained glass
In September of 1963, less than three weeks after Martin Luther King’s legendary “I Have a Dream” speech on the Capitol Mall in Washington D.C., white supremacists bombed the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Ala., killing four girls attending Sunday school. Later that day, two black teenage boys were murdered in the aftermath of the bombing.
The Rev. Norman “Jim” Jimerson, a white civil rights worker and Rand Jimerson’s father, visited the destroyed church that day to pay his respects and offer comfort. He had tried to rally the support of other white ministers to join him in meeting black clergymen to express their concern about the tragedy, but not one would.
On the debris-filled street, he picked up two large rosettes of stained glass, their lead frames twisted from the force of the blast. Jim Jimerson, director of the Alabama Council on Human Relations, may have already sensed that this shattered glass was an important piece of national history. He may not have realized that it would become part of his own family’s history.
As the Jimerson family moved over the years, the glass moved with them. Jim Jimerson’s wife, Melva Brooks Jimerson, often said the twisted metal was a reminder of the “twisted minds” that could feel such hate and conceive such a horrific act.
“It was a constant reminder of our connection to that event and the experiences we had in Alabama,” says Rand Jimerson, who is also director of the Archives & Records Management program at Western.
As an archivist, Jimerson says he recognizes his father’s decision to pick up the glass shards “was part of his desire to document and have evidence of that atrocity.” The family carefully “archived” the glass over the years, always keeping it in a place of prominence on a hutch in the dining room. In 2002, Melva Jimerson donated part of the stained glass to the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute. The rest remained in the family’s care.
Then a 2012 speech made by President Obama at the groundbreaking of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History & Culture made Rand Jimerson think it was time to share their piece of history. In his speech, the president said he would like his daughters to see artifacts from the civil rights era, such as “shards of glass” from the church bombing.
“This was valuable evidence,” Rand Jimerson says, “important for people to see and appreciate and understand those events.”
Rand Jimerson and three of his four siblings went to Washington, D.C., in September to donate the glass,
bringing its story full circle. The story of the Jimerson family will come full circle next year when Rand will release “Shattered Glass in Birmingham: My Family’s Fight for Civil Rights, 1961-1964” (LSU Press).
Life in the South
Told from 14-year-old Rand’s point of view, this memoir sheds light on the civil rights movement from the point of view of the majority’s minority: whites in the South who supported civil rights.
Rand Jimerson says his father was the only white person to attend every one of the funerals of the girls who died in the bombings and the two African-American boys who died in the violence on the same day as the blast. In the weeks following, the family received numerous anonymous death threats and harassing phone calls.
As a teenager, a time in life when it feels so important to fit in, Rand Jimerson kept his opinions on racial equality to himself.
“I had adopted, I just recently realized, a sort of ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ policy where I wouldn’t ask any of my classmates or friends what they thought about race relations,” he says, “because if they gave the answer I expected most of them to give, it would be difficult for me to continue a friendship.”
Once, he couldn’t help but speak out when his teacher said all civil rights activists were communists. Rand Jimerson says his teacher turned purple in the face hearing Rand’s defense of the activists, which, of course, included his father.
A lifetime of social justice
Steeped in the history-making events in the South as a teen, Jimerson pursued a career in academics, first focusing on history and then taking an interest in archival work. He began to see a thread between his work and his belief in social justice he had inherited from his parents.
“As I became more and more engaged as an archivist,” Jimerson says, “I realized the work I was doing was helping people with their immediate needs.”
Jimerson explains that archival documents have supported social justice causes throughout the world, such as the fight against South African apartheid, documenting the brutality of the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia, and restoring valuables to Jewish families whose belongings were stolen by the Nazis. Archives’ role on a smaller, yet no less important scale, has helped people to prove their birth date in order to receive Social Security, pension and insurance benefits.
“That [idea has] become an important part of how I talk to grad students,” Jimerson says. He sees it as a distinguishing feature of Western’s Archives & Records Management program.
Revealing the emotional truth
Jimerson has written extensively about archivists’ role in social justice, including a book titled, “Archives Power: Memory, Accountability, and Social Justice.” (Society of American Archivists). But in his most recent project, “Shattered Glass,” he takes on the role of memoirist.
Jimerson wrestled with how to tell his family’s story, and he finally settled on a memoir told from his viewpoint as a teenager. His father has passed away and his mother’s health is frail, but each sibling contributed to the epilogue accounts of how those years shaped their lives.
Though the memoir is a departure from his academic writing, Jimerson still used research in compiling his story, traveling to Alabama for documents from his father’s work to fill in details he didn’t know. He also drew upon interviews he conducted with his father years ago.
“I’m a historian, and I’m used to doing research and historical analysis, but I tried not to do very much of that in the book’s language,” Jimerson explains.
The academic in him wonders if some may take issue with his presentation of the story’s facts. For example, in the book prologue Jimerson recounts the day of the bombing from his father’s point of view, relying more on a son’s inference than a scholar’s documentation.
But Jimerson said this book is about more than hard facts: “I think it gets at what I think is the emotional truth of the experience, rather than the literal truth of direct quotations that historians are limited by,” Jimerson says. “As a historian, I follow those rules. But as a memoirist, I took some liberties to engage what I think of as the emotional truth of the experiences.”
Hilary Parker (’95, Journalism) is a freelance writer based in Bellingham. This is her first story for Window magazine.