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Recalling a Difficult Past: Whites’ Memories of Birmingham


  • Please direct correspondence to: Sandra K. Gill, Department of Sociology, Gettysburg College, Gettysburg, PA 17325, USA; tel.: 717-337-6189; fax: 717-337-7777; e-mail:


This article examines the intersection between collective memory and autobiographical memory through in-depth interviews with twenty whites who came of age in the midst of key events in the Civil Rights Movement in Birmingham, Alabama. Most interviewees report few autobiographical memories of the events of the Civil Rights Movement and the racial conflict surrounding these events. Instead, many center their recollections on the bombing of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church. The forgetting of autobiographical memories has been aided by a coalition of silence among whites about the era of integration and by reiterated media images that shaped recollections of the past. These white southerners have been able to renarrativize their pasts to forget memories that link them with the ideology of segregation and to reconstruct the self to be usable in the present. The article demonstrates ways that autobiographical memory is a social construction rather than an act of retrieval.