Megan McGregor Editor-in-Chief
James “Jim” Brinson, Mercersburg Academy’s carilloneur, was born in Birmingham, Alabama during a time when segregation in the South was the cultural norm. Growing up, he did not question the inequities of society, but he viewed members of his community with the same lens and did not discriminate based on color. During his childhood, he experienced the protests of Rosa Parks and the Montgomery Bus Boycott, riots due to racial tensions, and later, the assassination of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
As a child, Brinson’s family hired Eliza Williams, an African-American housekeeper. Though Brinson’s family never had explicit conversations about race, he remembers their kindness toward their housekeeper. Specifically, his parents once salvaged the wood from an older house and used it to build Williams a new home. Brinson’s father, an electrical engineer, did all the electrical wiring and brought Brinson along with him. Williams had a son around Brinson’s age, so they would play together.
“I don’t remember thinking it was weird to be playing with a black boy,” said Brinson. “I just remember playing with his BB gun and watching him load it with matches. It was a game to see who could shoot it against the sidewalk at the right angle and cause the match to light.”
Brinson he remembers daily instances of discrimination. From schools to restaurants to water fountains, segregation was rampant in the South. For example, Brinson remembers a time in middle school when he was part of a radio club and acted as an amateur radio operator. While on the radio, Brinson met a young man from Tuskegee, Alabama and bonded with him over their shared interest. Every spring, his club sponsored a conference for radio operators in the South, and when he asked if he could invite the African-American student from Tuskegee, the club members said no, responding that his participation would be against the law.
“It was a shock,” said Brinson. “We shared the same hobby and talked to each other, but it was illegal for him to come into our space and share that hobby with us in person. It made me realize that what was going on [in society] was not right.”
Besides common acts of discrimination, Brinson witnessed some of the most violent events of the time. Every Sunday, he and his family would attend church a few blocks away from the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham. He remembers a particular Sunday morning when, toward the end of the service, an usher walked up to the minister and gave him a message. Instead of greeting people at the end of the service, the minister left the church immediately. Later that day, it was announced that four African-American girls had been killed in a bombing at the Baptist Church just a few blocks away.
“After the bombing, there was so much tension in the city,” said Brinson. “The downtown marches, the number of arrests, and the tensions of school children caused national news coverage. Everything caused a lot of questions and further confirmed the feeling that things needed to change.”
Later when Brinson was a junior at Southwestern College at Memphis (now Rhodes College), he experienced the sanitation strike. He remembers how garbage stacked up all over Memphis and created a smelly and tense environment. People were furious that the garbage men refused to go back to their jobs, and eventually, Dr. King came to Memphis to speak in support of the strikers.
“There were protests, and a number of students and white clergymen participated in different marches in support of the sanitation workers,” said Brinson. “In fact, one of the clergymen from St. Mary’s Cathedral took this beautiful and large cross and led with it into the march. Many people were very against it, but the Dean at Rhodes reminded them that it was not their cross, but rather God’s cross.”
Despite experiencing the more violent aspects of the Civil Rights Movement, Brinson also witnessed moments of progress. The summer before his first year in college, he attended a youth leadership conference in Tennessee, and there was an African-American student there. During the opening ceremony, the camp chaplain read the story of Peter’s dream from the Bible and explained how God created all creatures in his vision. The chaplain’s message of equality allowed the students at the camp to welcome the African-American student with love and acceptance.
“It may have seemed like a radical idea to some people,” said Brinson. “But the chaplain’s message that the young man was loved by God, just like we were, truly moved me. The message of being open and receptive changed my life.”
While life during the Civil Rights Movement was often tumultuous and confusing, it was also an inspiring era of change. Brinson witnessed many of the events of the time period first hand, and he is excited to share his story.
“It was a time of real change, and I feel fortunate that I lived to see all of that,” said Brinson. “When I look back into my childhood, I think I can understand why people felt the way they did–it was the way society was, and no one really questioned it. When those who were being discriminated against spoke up and other people supported them, it created a powerful time of change. It was this time of change that really helped me become a more understanding and compassionate person.”