There is almost a straight line between Birmingham, Ala., and El Paso, Texas.
You can take Interstate 20 from just outside Birmingham, cross Mississippi, then Louisiana, and the entire breadth of the state of Texas to El Paso, a distance of 1,272 miles. Or about 18 hours by car.
When news that a young, white man had driven 10 hours from his suburban home outside Dallas with the specific intent to shoot and kill Latinos — including in a manifesto the same “invasion” used by President Trump — the enormity of the slaughter shook the nation into finally saying out loud that this was the work of white supremacism. And it became for me, too, a clear line to Birmingham.
Among the 22 dead in El Paso was a young mother, Jordan Anchondo, only 25, who was killed shielding her 2-month-old baby from the gunman. Her husband, Andre, 24, had also been killed, trying to protect his wife and child.
Published along with news accounts of the shooting was a photo of Andre, in his hospital scrubs and still with a baby face himself, staring with love at his just-born son, Paul Gilbert. To look at the photo and know what happened to this child’s parents, it’s impossible not to weep.
Within hours of the El Paso attacks, nine people were killed in Dayton, Ohio, but officials haven’t determined if race was a motive in the shootings.
On Sunday morning after the two weekend shootings, while I drove to an assignment at a Mount Airy church where a predominantly white congregation holds Ending Racism Committee meetings, I listened to a radio interview. A 17-year-old said the massacre in El Paso made her realize she could be killed simply for having brown skin, for being who she was.
It was an echo of my own realization, years ago. In 1963, when white men later found to be members of the Ku Klux Klan placed a bomb along the side of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, I was in elementary school, an all-black school. I, too, thought all those years ago, I can be killed for simply going to church.
The bombing in Birmingham, while not officially called terrorism at the time, did shake the conscience of the nation, indeed the world.
Four little girls died in their Sunday clothes that day: Denise McNair, 11, and Carole Robertson, Cynthia Wesley, and Addie Mae Collins, all 14. I have carried their memories with me all my life. Like them, I had been part of a small group of best friends who spent every Sunday together, hanging out in a church basement ladies lounge, primping and combing our hair in the time between Sunday School and the main church services. On the 30-year anniversary of the bombing, I traveled to Birmingham, and sat down with Alpha Robertson, Carole Robertson’s mother.
There was a sense that — having seen the photos of innocent girls sacrificed in the black struggle for civil rights — white America was finally realizing the depth of hatred and racism. Historians eventually cited the bombing and other violence directed at children that year — the snapping dogs and pummeling water hoses — as pivotal to the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
Could the fact that politicians, white, black, and Latino, are now denouncing the massacre in El Paso as an act of terrorism portend changes in gun laws and other laws to protect people from white supremacy? As Sen. Cory Booker (D., N.J.) proposed in his speech Wednesday at Emanuel AME in Charleston, S.C., the site of yet another church massacre in 2015, perhaps federal authorities could identify, track, and arrest white supremacists who threaten violence.
Miguel Andrade, who works for Juntos, a Philadelphia immigration advocacy organization, says that naming the shootings an act of terrorism is a start.
“It’s horrible that it takes a tragedy like this for people in power to take action,” Andrade said. “Do I know what will come of it? I’m not sure. The hatred has not only been spewed by the president but also by the extreme right wing. If no action is taken around this issue, the fear is, it will happen again.”
On Thursday, Latino groups gathered at the William Way Center to discuss their feelings.
“This was another act of terror,” Andrade said.