By Keysha Drexel
It was not until he was commissioned by the city of Birmingham last year to paint the official Civil Rights commemorative art for the movement’s 50th anniversary that Homewood native Steve Skipper said he truly realized how much the events of 1963 affected his life.
The 55-year-old artist and former Homewood High School football standout said he used those realizations to create “Through Many Dangers,” an intense portrayal of not only the scenes of the movement in Birmingham half a century ago but also of its legacy.
“This project made me ashamed of the fact that I had not really taken the time to study and get into the depth of what happened or to really appreciate fully the opportunities that God gave me because of the Civil Rights Movement,” Skipper said.
Skipper was just a small boy when the Civil Rights Movement ignited in Birmingham.
“I had a semi-awareness of what was going on, but I really didn’t understand a lot because my mother and father, like most mothers and fathers, tried to kind of shield us from what was going on,” he said.
But Skipper knew who Martin Luther King Jr. was and said he remembers clearly when the news of King’s assassination reached Birmingham.
“I remember my parents and other family members gathering at our house and just crying uncontrollably,” he said. “It was like that all over our neighborhood. People were outside, crying in the streets, just beside themselves with grief.”
Skipper said he learned through his research for the 50th anniversary project that scenes of grief were all too common in Birmingham during the Civil Rights Movement.
“We all knew about the dogs and the water hoses and all that–and you see those images in my painting–but what you also see in the painting is something that not a lot of people talk about and something that many people today are not really aware of, and that’s the fact that the Civil Rights Movement was not just a black movement,” Skipper said. “The painting has images of black and white people holding hands and singing, because that’s what happened. Without the participation and ultimate sacrifice of all races, there would be no movement.”
And without the movement, Skipper said, he doesn’t think he would be where he is today.
“I was going through the doors at the University of Alabama as a business man, and that would have never happened if it hadn’t been for the people who fought against George Wallace,” he said. “Even when I went to Edgewood Elementary in the fourth grade, it was because of the movement.”
During his research for the painting, Skipper said, he realized the full weight of the change that was taking place in his community when he was in elementary school.
“I started putting the dates together and remembered the huge upheaval when Rosedale Elementary was closed and we were bused to Edgewood Elementary and later, Homewood Middle,” he said. “As a kid, I just thought that all of sudden, Rosedale is closing and we were going to what we called ‘the white school’ and I really didn’t understand the reason behind it at the time.”
But as an adult, as Skipper thought about what going to Edgewood Elementary School in the fourth grade had meant to his life, he said he understood that he owed that opportunity to the foot soldiers–black and white–of the Civil Rights Movement and to everyone who tried to make integration work.
“It wasn’t that Rosedale was bad and we had to go to white schools. It was for better opportunities, and when I realized that, it really shocked the daylights out of me,” he said.
Skipper said it also made him realize how devoted his teachers had been to making sure all students were given access to better opportunities.
“It was really eye-opening for me to think about why the teachers–black and white–worked so hard to make integration work from that point forward,” he said. “I hadn’t realized what our teachers were under during that time.”
But the transition to a different school was also difficult for Skipper and his classmates, he said.
“It was a culture shock,” Skipper said. “We were in shock because we were so sheltered, we hadn’t really seen white people besides on TV.”
As he rode the bus into the Edgewood neighborhood each day, Skipper said he was also struck by how it contrasted to his own neighborhood.
“I remember going into the Homewood neighborhoods and the shock of how much everything changed as we were going up the hill,” Skipper said.
Skipper said the culture shock was evident in all the kids at Edgewood Elementary at that time.
“The white kids didn’t know what to think about us either. This whole thing was totally new to them, too,” he said.
Skipper said he vividly remembers how tensions mounted as the students learned about each other.
“I was acting out and the teacher asked me step out in the hallway, and there was another guy out there, a white guy, and then another white guy came up and I was getting ready to fight them,” he said. “But one of the kids, Phillip, he was Greek and he told me that some kids said things about him, too, and as I realized he was in the same boat I was in, I started to learn that people were people.”
It was around that time that Skipper’s artistic skills were first nurtured, he said.
“I had an uncle who wanted to be an artist and he was very good at it, but because of the way society was back then, he was discouraged because being an artist at that time was considered a ‘white dream,'” Skipper said. “He ended up being an alcoholic.”
Skipper said he started drawing because his older brother, Don, did it.
“I idolized my older brother, and when he started sketching and drawing, I picked up a pencil and did the same thing,” Skipper said. “Plus, I saw that doodling and drawing got my brother attention from the girls.”
But after Skipper’s fourth-grade teacher approached his mother about him taking art classes, Skipper realized his budding passion for art was something that didn’t sit well with his mom.
“My fourth-grade teacher told my mother that I had a gift and even offered to pay for me to take lessons out of her own pocket, but my mother told me it would never happen, and I guess she thought the same thing would happen to me that happened to my uncle,” he said.
While his teachers still nurtured his artistic talents, Skipper soon put his dreams of being an artist aside and tried to numb his disappointment with drugs.
“You take that first hit of marijuana and it numbs you to reality, and it makes you feel like who you are not,” he said.
Skipper soon got involved with a gang as he struggled to find his identity and where he fit into society.
“I was as ripe as an apple for someone to come up and ask me to be a part of a gang,” he said. “It offers the mirage of family, of belonging.”
By the time he was 16, Skipper was dealing drugs for the gang and walking around his neighborhood with a loaded gun, he said.
One day when he and other gang members were getting high at the neighborhood pool, one of the lifeguards called Skipper’s name–and changed his life.
“I knew Big Mike from the neighborhood, and he was a lifeguard at the pool. One day, he had the audacity to call out my name when we were sitting a table in the pool area getting high,” Skipper said. “We all had guns and he had crossed the line by even talking to us, but here he was calling out my name and just my name when there are about 12 of us sitting there.”
Big Mike had recently been saved and asked Skipper to go to church with him.
“I don’t know if he had any idea of how close he was to really getting hurt coming over there and talking to me about going to church, but I just remember signaling to the other guys in the gang to hold up and let him talk,” Skipper said. “I think somewhere deep down inside, I knew I wanted to hear what Big Mike had to say. My exterior was wearing gang colors, but inside, I was crying out for God to save me.”
Skipper said he thought he could get Big Mike to stop talking if he agreed to go to church with him.
“I knew he went to church out of town, and I figured that I would just tell him later that I couldn’t go because I couldn’t find a way to get there,” Skipper said.
But Big Mike had other plans, and on Dec. 23, 1976, he brought the church to Skipper.
“He arranged for the preacher and the whole church to come to my neighborhood to hold a service,” Skipper said. “I told him I would be there but had already made plans to slip out during the sermon and try speed for the first time. But God had other plans for me that night.”
After hearing a sermon that he felt like was given just for him, Skipper said he was saved that night and went home to wait for the drug withdrawal symptoms to hit him.
“I have been waiting for 38 years to go through those withdrawals that I was so afraid of that night,” he said. “God not only saved my soul that night, He saved my life. Later, I learned that the speed I was supposed to try for the first time that night had not been cut right and a bunch of people died from it.”
The next morning, Skipper said, he was telling “anybody that would stand still” that he had been saved.
“At one point, my parents thought I had lost my mind,” he said. “The change in me was immediate and radical.”
Skipper’s sudden and complete transformation also stunned the gang members.
“I went in talking to them about Jesus Christ, and I think they were scared because they could tell that I was for real, that what had happened to me was real,” he said. “Usually, there’s only one way out of a gang–death–but I was allowed to walk out and no one has ever said a word to me or hassled me about it in any way.”
While Skipper’s realization that God had blessed him with a second chance to make something of his life was sudden, the artist said it took much longer for him to realize the chances afforded to him by the foot soldiers of the Civil Rights Movement.
While researching “Through Many Dangers,” Skipper said he became overwhelmed on how to best present all he was learning.
“So I went up to Sixteenth Baptist Church one Sunday afternoon, and although I had been to the nearby Civil Rights Institute several times, this was the first time I had walked over to the church,” Skipper said. “It was a dreary looking day, and as I walked up the steps to the church, I prayed to God on how to approach this project because there were so many images from history flashing through my mind from my research.”
As he turned around to look from the church’s steps out into Kelly Ingram Park, Skipper realized a way to incorporate all the images in his head into the painting.
“I looked up in the sky, and a scripture from Hebrews came to my mind that talks about a great cloud of witnesses, and that got me thinking about the charge we have to carry the hope the previous generation gave us through the Civil Rights Movement,” he said.
Skipper worked for about 900 hours drawing and 1,700 hours completing “Through Many Dangers,” which was unveiled last year at a symposium given by Bill Cosby in Birmingham.
Skipper said the project taught him a lot about history that he didn’t know, including his own personal history.
“I learned that (Fred) Shuttlesworth grew up in the same neighborhood as my mother and my aunts and they went to school together, and that was very moving to discover,” he said.
But more importantly, Skipper said, completing the painting made him realize he would have never had the chance to make the first brushstroke without his faith and the Civil Rights Movement’s legacy of hope.
“It makes you realize that not only do we have a responsibility to carry the charge for the people who went before us in the Civil Rights Movement but we also have a responsibility to do it, because what happened here in 1963 and in the years that followed wasn’t just a Civil Rights Movement–it was a movement initiated by God.”
For more information on Skipper and his artwork, visit www.anointedhomesart.com.