What Is Michele Norris’ Dreadful Family Secret?

Today in the Washington Post, reporter David Montgomery talks to NPR’s Michele Norris about her new memoir, and how writing it led her into corners of her family’s history in Birmingham that she had never known about. After talk of awful secrets and the necessity of protective silence, Montgomery follows Norris into a building in Birmingham called the Pythian Temple:

“You stand here and you imagine how loud a gunshot would be,” she says. “His blood would have been on the floor.”

She pauses a long minute. Dabs at the tears appearing on her cheek.

“Whatever happened here didn’t define my dad,” she says.

Mercy. Her father, before he moved north to Minnesota in the postwar migration of African Americans and became a postal worker, killed somebody? Or was her real father killed here, a secret kept from her by a loving stepfather?

Montgomery reconstructs the moment Norris got a message telling her the hidden truth about her family’s life in Birmingham:

A researcher friend in Birmingham had uncovered a few details about what happened that night in the Pythian Temple.

The shock made Norris’s knees buckle. She sank to the floor and sat with her back to the dishwasher for two hours, on the verge of throwing up.

“All I knew at that point is that the man that I so revered, the most important person in my life, wasn’t who I thought he was,” she says.

Was her father a secret informant for the FBI ? Had he passed for white, joined the city’s racist police force, and helped brutalize his own community?

Slowly—very slowly—Montgomery unveils the details. Norris’ father was 20. He was out with his brothers and a friend. They went to the fateful Pythian Temple. And?

The trio was stepping toward the elevator when one of Bull Connor’s policemen in the lobby thrust his billy club in front of them, blocking their path. Norris pushed the club away. There was a scuffle, an officer drew his gun, the gun went off and Norris was grazed in the leg. The brothers and their friend spent the night in jail. They were convicted the next day of resisting arrest and drunkenness, though Norris was never much of a drinker.

And then?

No, that was it.

In a city where the cops were the vanguard of a white-supremacist army, where black people were shot and bombed and attacked with dogs in the name of segregation, Michele Norris’ father…got in a scuffle with a police officer once. He suffered a slight injury, and, though the police were perfectly willing to murder their prisoners if they wanted to, they rang him up on a couple of minor offenses and let him go. Then he got out of Birmingham.

This is the shattering truth that Michele Norris needed to write a whole memoir to grapple with. This is why she says her father wasn’t who she thought he was.

Who did she think he was, then? He sounds like a normal, working-class black man who lived in a bad place at a bad time. Up north, he told his daughter to remember the Birmingham girls who were killed by racists with dynamite. He didn’t tell her that 15 years before she was born, he had his own relatively minor run-in with the police. Maybe, as Norris tells Montgomery, this is because he suffered in silence, because he didn’t want to burden his daughter with such terrifying knowledge.

Or maybe it’s because he didn’t think it was a big deal.