When Homewood City Schools refused to integrate in the 1960s, Woodland Drive resident Eileen Walbert took to the streets.
“She walked by herself through Rosedale and knocked on doors and found 13 kids to integrate Shades Valley, Homewood Junior High and Shades Cahaba Elementary,” said her son, David.
Walbert drove the students to school and around town in her old black car. She had to constantly hold the gearshift as she drove, and it became known among friends as the “Civil Rights Car.” She remembered verbal abuse against the students and white residents following them as they drove around town. Despite a 1966 federal desegregation order for the city, Walbert’s integration effort, especially at Shades Valley High School, was “hellish every day.”
In the larger struggle for civil rights in Birmingham and across Alabama, small stories like the integration of Homewood schools often get lost to history. Walbert and fellow Homewood civil rights activists Peggy Rupp and Florence Siegel, however, still had an important role to play. Despite the inherited privilege of being white in the 1950s and 1960s, all three women were active participants in the civil rights movement and ultimately were part of the first white civil rights march in Alabama history.
Finding a place in the movement
At the time, schools and neighborhoods in Homewood remained segregated, with most black families concentrated in one section of Rosedale. Siegel, who lived on the south side of Birmingham and later moved to Homewood, remembered a shocking degree of ignorance about the unrest growing in the city.
“There were people who lived in Birmingham who never knew there was anything like the civil rights movement,” Siegel said. “You didn’t read about it in the newspapers. The newspapers were terrible about reporting what was really going on.”
With such separation between black and white communities, white supporters of racial equality had a difficult time getting involved. Walbert, Rupp and Siegel met each other and found their chance to participate through the Birmingham Council on Human Relations (BCHR), an interracial civil rights group. As they met fellow supporters, all three women began to grow more confident — and outspoken — in their role in the movement.
Siegel and her husband, Abraham, attended demonstrations and supported the integration of UAB, where Abraham worked as a biochemist. Rupp’s involvement led her from the funeral of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church bombing victims to the doors of the state troopers’ office, protesting the exclusion of black police officers. Rupp befriended Reverend Andrew Young, a prominent member of the movement, and got to see her hero Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. at work. While some white friends and neighbors thought she was “kind of nuts,” Rupp never wavered in her support.
“I wasn’t doing it to be recognized. I was doing it because I had to do it,” Rupp said.
Walbert’s focus lay in the neighborhoods of Homewood. Her family opened their home to meetings and activists passing through on their way to marches. As she and fellow BCHR member Willa Adams dedicated themselves to ending school segregation, she faced down prejudice from the school officials, city businesses and complete strangers angered by the sight of a white woman taking black children to school.
Standing up to the bullies
There was a severe backlash against both white and black supporters of the civil rights movement. Someone burned a cross on the Walbert family’s lawn, and all three women received threatening phone calls from admitted Ku Klux Klan members.
“I heard language and insults that I didn’t even know how to be insulted by because I didn’t understand it,” Rupp said.
They had friends who were attacked or had their homes bombed. Siegel remembered watching police officers ignore or even participate in anti-civil rights violence.
“Back in the old days, you couldn’t be sure that anyone would protect you in law enforcement,” Siegel said. “In fact, you were more frightened about seeing law enforcement people. If you went to a meeting and you saw law enforcement people, you would probably be more worried than reassured.”
A local paper called the Birmingham Independent, run by the radical John Birch Society, claimed communists were behind the civil rights movement. Walbert herself appeared on the front page of the Independent as an accused communist several times.
This opposition sometimes became violent, but it did not deter the women from what they knew was right.
“I was learning how to be brave,” Walbert said. “A bully, if you let them know you’re not scared, they’ll back off.”
Songs and smoke bombs in Selma
Rupp remembers the first time she thought about marching. Despite the passage of the Civil Rights Act, black voters across Alabama still faced difficult tests and outright violence at the polls. At a BCHR meeting, Rupp said a speaker called on the white members of the audience to “put your body where your mouth is” and protest the mistreatment of black voters.
On March 6, 1965, Walbert, Rupp and Siegel were among the 72 Concerned White Citizens of Alabama who marched in Selma. It was the first time that white citizens had demonstrated in Alabama in support of the civil rights movement.
The group could not get a parade permit and had to march on the sidewalk in groups of four, with about 30 feet of space between them. Rupp and her husband of four months were in the first group of marchers. She recalled the onlookers’ jeers and occasional attempts at physical abuse. The marchers had been taught to ignore the hostile crowd and not even make eye contact. Rupp’s husband broke that rule only once, to kick away a cane that someone had stuck in front of his wife’s feet.
At one point, a group of people tried to set off a smoke bomb. Luckily, the wind blew the smoke away from the marchers, but malice still hung thickly in the air.
“You could just feel when people hated you,” Siegel said. “That was one of the only times that I thought, ‘Am I really in a place like this?’”
The marchers finally reached the Dallas County Courthouse, read their statement in support of equal voting rights and sang “America the Beautiful.” As they turned to leave, something amazing happened.
“All of a sudden this chorus of black people across the street had gathered. They started singing ‘We Shall Overcome,’” Walbert said. “It was thrilling.”
The Concerned White Citizens were just one in a series of groups to march in Selma, including the infamous and brutal “Bloody Sunday” march. Public outcry in response to the Selma marches prompted President Lyndon Johnson to sign the Voting Rights Act in August 1965.
‘Like a different world’
Walbert, Rupp and Siegel have lived in Homewood for decades and have watched the city grow more accepting of equal rights. Attitudes have shifted, and the neighborhoods, schools and even the police force have integrated.
“It isn’t quite as bad as it was. Oh, it’s like a different world,” Siegel said.
Walbert said she has received “all kinds of apologies” from former opponents of the movement. She was honored by the YWCA, and her 90th birthday celebration at the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute was filmed by an ABC News crew.
“I find it interesting: You go from being called a communist to suddenly being a hero,” David Walbert said.
Walbert keeps in touch with former members of the movement and the students she helped to integrate in Homewood schools. The same people still meet in her home, but now they share Christmas dinners instead of pamphlets, and nobody has to worry about receiving hate calls.
Rupp’s formerly all-white neighborhood now has families of different races and religions, and she believes Homewood has come a long way from the violence and hate she once faced.
“I may be more optimistic and more idealistic than realistic. I don’t know. But I just see Homewood as being open very much to everybody that lives here,” Rupp said. “I think it’s wonderful that Homewood, our little city, works hard to make it a city for all people.”