Jim Neel ’71
’ve often wondered why Alpha Robertson singled me
out, chose me to be her child. But she did, and because
she did, my life has followed a different path.
On the surface it would have seemed we had little in
common. She was much older than I, a little older
even than my own mother. Her world was that of
books, mine a world of art, she a librarian, I a sculptor.
Our conversations were always about family. My
family. My life. When did my exhibition open at the
museum in Montgomery? Did I have pictures of my
brother’s new daughter? She brightened with each of my
accomplishments, with the little things that made me
happy. Just being around her lifted me, for there was such
gentle goodness and sincere compassion about her that she
appeared to shine.
She and I spoke in this way, for some time, more than
a year, before a colleague of mine casually mentioned the
tragedy of Alpha’s life with the presumption that I already
knew, that I must have known, should have known, that
Carole Robertson was her daughter. My initial shock of the
revelation quickly turned to disbelief and embarrassment.
How could I not have known? Did Alpha assume I did
know and was simply too self-centered and callous not
to speak of her loss? What must she think of me? When
Carole died in the rubble of the 16th Street Baptist Church
that September day in 1963, she and I were the same age,
but I had been across town in the safety of my all-white
Methodist church. Did Alpha not resent that I stood there
alive, a member of the race that had murdered her daughter
32 / ’southern
simply for the fact that her skin
was of a different hue? When
she looked in my face, was it
not painted in the color of our
collective white guilt? Did she
not see Robert Chambliss every
time she saw me?
But those were the questions
of my immature heart. Alpha’s
heart was much larger. It was
selfless. It had the capacity
for forgiveness. I wish I could
say that she passed that grace
on to me, but I don’t think I
possess her kind of charity. I am pretty sure that, situations
reversed, vengeance and bitterness would have consumed
my being. But the one thing I do know for a certainty is
that, at this 50th anniversary year, it is her example, not
mine, that we must follow. It is Alpha who can lead us
*Alpha Robertson died in 2002. In 2001, she testified in the
trial of Thomas Blanton Jr. and Bobby Frank Cherry, the last of
the four KKK members responsible for the bombing that killed her
teenage daughter, thus surviving a 38-year wait for justice.
*Neel is an associate professor of art and art history at BSC
whose sculpture, drawings, and photography have appeared
in national exhibitions.
during a 1964
rally at the
corner of Eighth
Avenue West
and Jasper
Alumni reflections
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