Choir to voice the words of Birmingham's 'unsung'

Saturday - 9/14/2013, 12:02am EDT

AP National Writer

Seeking inspiration for a musical commission to mark the 50th anniversary of the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing, composer Yotam Haber turned to the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute's Oral History Project. Combing through the files in the Alabama city, he came across a 1998 interview with Henrietta Tripp.

He was struck by the former hairdresser's description of hearing the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. speak at the church in the spring of 1963, several months before the horrible blast.

"That was hallelujah time," she told the interviewer. "And he was talking about Birmingham being one of the hardest cities to crack. It was the hardest city to crack."

When a chorus of 100 voices performs Haber's piece later this month, Tripp's words will soar along with those of King and others -- famous and unsung -- who fought to defeat Jim Crow.

"My little words? My little part is so minute in comparison to these great people," the 77-year-old retired clerk, who became one of the first African-Americans hired by the city police department, said recently. How, she wonders, are "my words going to fit in?"

Perfectly, says Haber.

Rather than focus in a literal way on the Sept. 15, 1963, Ku Klux Klan bombing that killed four black girls during Sunday services, the Dutch-born composer sought to evoke Birmingham's role in the larger struggle.

"I'm not telling Birmingham her own story," says Haber, whose work the Alabama Symphony will premiere on Sept. 21. "She knows it far better than I will ever be able to tell it."

The composition is titled "A More Convenient Season," a phrase borrowed from King's famous "Letter From a Birmingham Jail."

Arrested in April 1963 on a charge of parading without a permit, King drafted the open letter to fellow clergy who had condemned his activities as "unwise and untimely." King declared that, more dangerous than a Klansman was the white moderate who "paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man's freedom; who ... constantly advises the Negro to wait for a 'more convenient season.'"

Haber's piece -- which he says "falls somewhere between an oratorio and an opera" -- is divided into three movements. Before the choir gets to King's letter, the audience will hear the words and, through archival recordings, voices of ordinary foot soldiers whose names are likely unknown to them.

Names like Pamela Walbert Montanaro.


"One of the things they taught you/ You can't eat in the same place/ You can't go to the same place," says the libretto, quoting Montanaro, who was 15 in 1960, when the civil rights movement reached "Bombingham."

Among her mother's closest friends were Deenie Drew, at whose home King stayed while in town, and Willa Adams, who worked to integrate the schools and get rid of racist textbooks. But Pamela Walbert, as a white teenager, never interacted with African-Americans her own age.

She had been reading about sit-ins in other Southern cities, and when she learned that the Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth had helped organize a local campaign, she wrote him a letter, expressing admiration.

It wasn't long before she received a phone call. It was a "Negro girl," and she was inviting Walbert to gather with sit-in participants at Shuttlesworth's Bethel Baptist Church.

Walbert and three friends sat in a circle of chairs. It was warm, and there weren't enough drinks to go around. Someone opened a can of soda, and Walbert watched as it passed from black hand to white, each person taking a sip -- taboo in a rigidly segregated society where there were separate drinking fountains for white and "colored."

When the can reached her, she drank without pause. It was a religious experience.

"I felt flooded with the holy spirit," she said during a recent telephone interview from her home in Berkeley, Calif. "And I thought, 'This is what holy communion is supposed to feel like.'"

Later, when an Episcopal clergyman explained "why he couldn't get involved in the movement," the Walbert family left the church.

"And so our family was essentially born again in the civil rights movement," says Montanaro, whose parents subsequently became close with the parents of bombing victim Denise McNair.

Montanaro moved away in 1964, married and raised a family. But her experiences growing up in Birmingham launched her on a lifelong search for social justice.

Now 69, she calls the 1960s an inspiring time. "It's like the agony and the ecstasy. I mean, you were seeing the best that people can be and the worst that people can be -- in very quick succession."