'Boom' forever changed a life
By MICHAEL A. MOHAMMED
Published December 17, 2006
When Hubert Grissom arrived at Birmingham-Southern College in 1960, students' most serious concerns were swallowing goldfish and stuffing telephone booths.
That all changed at the start of his junior year. On Sept. 15, 1963, Grissom heard an explosion while sitting in his fraternity house.
The bomb at the 16th Street Baptist Church in Alabama killed four black girls. The event marked a turning point in the civil rights movement, in the atmosphere at Birmingham-Southern and in Grissom's life.
Grissom, now 65, lives near Bayshore in South Tampa. BapBomb, his play about the bombing, will premier Jan. 11 at the Gorilla Theatre.
Set in 1988 and named for the FBI code for the bombing, the play deals with the "passive participation" that allows hate crimes to happen, Grissom said.
"I don't want to sound too corny, but it's something I have to do," Grissom said of the play.
He's not the only one. Two of his college buddies, Howell Raines and Howard Cruse, went on to publish books about the civil rights movement.
"We all write about it because it was such a crucial moment in our lives," he said.
In college, Grissom edited Southern Accent, the college yearbook. Its opening pages urge readers to remember what Grissom copes with in his play: "the rioters ... the great hairy cops with carbines and shotguns ... the smell of old pine shacks burning in the night."
After college, Grissom went on to Duke Law School and then spent 22 years with a Birmingham law firm that served as legal counsel to the Birmingham News, one of the city's daily newspapers.
He resigned in 1989 to write his first two plays: Wedges, about progressive former Alabama Gov. "Big Jim" Folsom, and Waterin' Hole, about an integrated bar during a violent railroad strike in the 1950s.
Grissom moved from Birmingham to Florida in 1995 to cope with substance abuse at a Boca Raton rehabilitation center, a problem he has struggled with throughout his adult life. His addiction, he said, contributed to his decision to resign from his law firm in 1989.
Grissom's troubled state formed part of the basis for BapBomb's protagonist, a senior law firm partner struggling with dementia and guilt. As legal counsel for an unnamed Birmingham newspaper, the character had heard illegal wiretap recordings of Ku Klux Klan members planning the 1963 church bombing.
"The premise of the play is, 'My God, what did they really know?' " he said.
Discrimination against gays is another important theme in the play, Grissom said. He started outlining its plot in 1988 soon after a close friend died of AIDS.
"The point of the play is that no one should be a victim of a hate crime," he said.
Grissom serves as litigation director for Tampa's Advocacy Center for Persons with Disabilities. The center is suing the state to transfer mentally ill people from jails to appropriate facilities.
"Because of my own personal background, I know that with proper mental health treatment ... many people become fully productive members of society," Grissom said.
While the play and the lawsuit take up nearly all his time now, Grissom knows his way around the kitchen: in Birmingham, he wrote a food column, "Cordon Bleu & Barbeque," for seven years.
His fishing and scuba diving hobbies have also fallen victim to BapBomb, he said, and unused equipment litters his house.
Michael Mohammed can be reached at email@example.com or 813 226-3404.
[Last modified December 16, 2006, 20:56:08]
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