Yesterday was the fiftieth anniversary of the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama that killed four young black girls and wounded twenty-two other children. You can read a heart-rending description of the morning’s events HERE.
This act of domestic terrorism, designed to strike fear into the hearts of those who were calling for an end to segregation, took place just two weeks after Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream Speech” in Washington and two months before President John F. Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas, Texas. In addition to the blood shed at the church, two other black youths in Birmingham were killed on that same day, one by a policeman and another by two white youths.
Former Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice was an eight-year old girl in Birmingham in 1963. In a recent interview, she reflected on that Sunday’s disturbing events:
My dad’s church was only about two miles from 16th Street Baptist Church, and so it was like the ground shook. And for kids in Birmingham my age, I was eight, it was — how could these people hate us so much?
In yesterday’s New York Times, an editorial on “Birmingham Sunday” mentioned an important fact about what life and prevailing opinion was like in Birmingham at that point in history:
…the civil rights struggle was not simply a victory of good over evil, of the righteous defeating the Klansmen who gave “Bombingham” its bloody reputation. The struggle was good against “normal” — against the segregation that was seen as the natural order of things, buttressed by government, tradition and the law. In this, Dr. King and his allies were the radicals.
This bombing galvanized that burgeoning civil rights movement, as Jon Meachem notes in a piece for Time:
The attack on the 16th Street Baptist Church was an act of terrorism that stands as one of the great turning points in American history. Together with the March on Washington in August, the September murder of the four little girls opened the way for Lyndon Johnson’s successful push for civil rights legislation in 1964, in the aftermath of the November assassination of President Kennedy.
Eight thousand people attended a funeral service for three of the four girls, but no city officials came. Dr. Martin Luther King preached; his message was called: “Eulogy for the Martyred Children” —
…They are the martyred heroines of a holy crusade for freedom and human dignity. And so this afternoon in a real sense they have something to say to each of us in their death. They have something to say to every minister of the gospel who has remained silent behind the safe security of stained-glass windows. They have something to say to every politician [Audience:] (Yeah) who has fed his constituents with the stale bread of hatred and the spoiled meat of racism. They have something to say to a federal government that has compromised with the undemocratic practices of southern Dixiecrats (Yeah) and the blatant hypocrisy of right-wing northern Republicans. (Speak) They have something to say to every Negro (Yeah) who has passively accepted the evil system of segregation and who has stood on the sidelines in a mighty struggle for justice. They say to each of us, black and white alike, that we must substitute courage for caution. They say to us that we must be concerned not merely about who murdered them, but about the system, the way of life, the philosophy which produced the murderers. Their death says to us that we must work passionately and unrelentingly for the realization of the American dream.
And so my friends, they did not die in vain. (Yeah) God still has a way of wringing good out of evil. (Oh yes) And history has proven over and over again that unmerited suffering is redemptive. The innocent blood of these little girls may well serve as a redemptive force (Yeah) that will bring new light to this dark city. (Yeah) The holy Scripture says, “A little child shall lead them.” (Oh yeah) The death of these little children may lead our whole Southland (Yeah) from the low road of man’s inhumanity to man to the high road of peace and brotherhood. (Yeah, Yes) These tragic deaths may lead our nation to substitute an aristocracy of character for an aristocracy of color. The spilled blood of these innocent girls may cause the whole citizenry of Birmingham (Yeah) to transform the negative extremes of a dark past into the positive extremes of a bright future. Indeed this tragic event may cause the white South to come to terms with its conscience. (Yeah)
And so I stand here to say this afternoon to all assembled here, that in spite of the darkness of this hour (Yeah Well), we must not despair. (Yeah, Well) We must not become bitter (Yeah, That’s right), nor must we harbor the desire to retaliate with violence. No, we must not lose faith in our white brothers. (Yeah, Yes) Somehow we must believe that the most misguided among them can learn to respect the dignity and the worth of all human personality.
In Meachem’s article, he notes that Birmingham has come a long way since that terrible morning in 1963. William Bell, a fourteen year old African-American member of the church who heard the blast at his home and rushed with his family to the scene, is now mayor of the city. He credits the sacrifice of those girls as a catalyst, prompting changes that eventually allowed him to serve as Birmingham’s leader.
And the Christian people who suffered violence and loss that day have learned to forgive. Sarah Collins Rudolph, sister of Addie Mae Collins, has said:
At first, I was angry. I was very angry when I was younger. Later along in my life, I knew that I had to forgive these people because God forgave me of my sins. Holding hate on the inside, it only keeps you sick and angry, and so I just had to forgive those men.
One odd occurrence in the event that many noted: in the only stained glass window at 16th St. Baptist Church not destroyed by the explosion, the face of Jesus was blown out while the rest of the glass remained intact. Surely he had withdrawn his face at this heinous act — a face streaked with tears! One can only imagine the anguish of him who said of those who trouble little ones: “It would be better for them to have a huge stone hung around their necks and be drowned in the bottom of the lake” (Matt. 18:6, CEB).
We who have survived since 1963 have seen some good come of this evil, but we must not forget the cost. Four children, their families, and a community of people gathering to worship God through the Prince of Peace suffered unspeakable violence at the hands of men who served as agents of evil that day. Though we attempt to forgive and though we take solace in the overcoming power of the Almighty, the faces of four young girls still haunt us and their lament reverberates wherever injustice continues:
My eyes are worn out from weeping; my stomach is churning.
My insides are poured on the ground because the daughter of my people is shattered,
because children and babies are fainting in the city streets.
…The children that I nurtured, that I raised myself, my enemy finished them off.
- Lamentations 2:11, 22