BIRMINGHAM, Ala.—Aug. 5th was B-Day. B-for-Brimingham. The day 105 soldiers in grease paint invaded this Civil Rights battlefield for the first integrated show in its history. . . .
The two chartered planes, subsidized by private donations took off from LaGuardia. Sprits were high. Cracked one white performer, "Hey, things are changing. I'm sitting in the back of the plane!" Cracked a black one, "This is the only passenger plane in history with a tail gunner in the rear. . . .
An estimated 20,000—colored and white—brought their own bridge chairs, camp chairs and backyard chairs in what was tagged locally, "Seats for Freedom." Those without chairs rented them on the grounds for 25c. Or brought pillows. Or squatted on the grass. . . .
An additional 45-minute delay was caused by the late arrival of Ray Charles. His bus couldn't proceed to the stage because opening the gate would have meant thousands could pour in helter skelter. Near mayhem was averted by the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King who quickly stepped forward toward the helmeted policemen on duty, he formed a human chain to stem the onrush. It wasn't needed. His presence was enough.
The "stage" was an elevated slab of plywood put together with spit. Near the 3/4 mark, when Johnny Mathis was eight bars into his opening song, the entire bandstand collapsed. With it went some invited guests. I was one of them, so was Leo Shull, Johnny Mathis, Wm. B. Williams, James Baldwin. It was like an earthquake. Two sections of the stage suddenly split . . .
Simultaneously, all electrical equipment went dead. Some of us were slightly injured. Several had broken limbs, one had both legs broken. All of us were badly shaken. We'd been repeatedly warned of possible violence. In the ensuing darkness and chaos, we wondered if it was to hit now.
In true show-must-go-on tradition, Alabama's Christian Choir struck up a gospel. The remaining performers did their turns sans lights, mikes & music since many instruments had been broken.
Not one person left during the 30-minute blackout. When the five-hour show finally closed at 1:30 a.m., the audience was still stomping and applauding for more.
A caravan of private cars returned the troupe to Municipal Airport because neither Birmingham's "white" taxis nor the "colored" would drive the integrated group. The plane was delayed an hour. First, because of a security check. Rumors of a bomb threat had reached the airfield. Second, because the colored chauffeur of one vehicle was detained 30 minutes and fined $45 for going 60 miles an hour. Attempts by the stars to ascertain how 1936 bus could go 60 miles an hour brought surly responses. This, after a two way radio discussion between the officers and their supervisors as to whether or not they should "lock the driver up for his crime."
At 9 a.m., 21 hours after this weary band of minstrels took off, they returned. Like one tearful but grateful Negro lady, who'd driven all the way from Houston to see the show put it, "Never ever will we forget this evening."