Fifty years ago this morning, at 10:22am, a bomb exploded in the basement of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama. The lesson in Sunday School that morning was “Love That Forgives.” Four girls: Denise McNair, Addie Mae Collins, Cynthia Wesley, and Carole Robertson all died. One member of a local KKK group was charged with possession of dynamite. No one else was originally charged. In 1977, a new Attorney General in Alabama asked the FBI for its files on the case. He discovered significantly more evidence than the FBI shared in 1963. As a result, two men were charged and eventually convicted, a third who took part had since died.
The 16th Street Baptist Church was, and is still, a large building and an important institution in Birmingham. In 1963, it served as a center for civil rights activities. The church played a key part in the extensive civil disobedience campaigns that took place in Birmingham. The bombing occurred 17 days after the successful March on Washington, underscoring the intransigence civil rights would face in the South. The bombing became a significant point in the civil rights movement as the rest of America saw photographs and news accounts of the violence. Like the police dogs and fire hoses of Selma, much of America watched in horror as Birmingham buried four little girls.
The bombing in Birmingham seemed to unleash a spirit of violence. Killed later the same day were two African-American boys: 16-year-old Johnny Robinson was shot by police and 13-year-old Virgil Ware was shot as he rode his brother’s bike.
After the bombing, many civil rights leaders rushed to Birmingham. Dr. King arrived late in the day of the bombing, urging the local African-American community to remain non-violent. During earlier protests in Birmingham, Gov. George Wallace said that what Birmingham needed to get back to order was a few “first class funerals.” When Dr. King arrived after the bombing, speaking to the press, he spoke clearly to the Governor saying: “You have blood on your hands.” Dr. King would eventually preach at the girls’ funeral.
The sadness of this bombing inspired many works of art, three of which stand out in my mind: Dudley Randall’s poem and later song, “The Ballad of Birmingham,” Spike Lee’s 1997 documentary film “Four Little Girls,” and Randall Horton’s poems “September 15, 1963” and “Caught in a Whirlwind of Hate” from his book The Definition of Place.
If we are to transcend the hatred, both personal and institutional, that caused this event, we must remember it. We must recall the names, the places, the times. In 2013, and in the coming few years, we will mark the fiftieth anniversaries of many moments in the civil rights movement and if we are to keep moving toward Dr. King’s dream of the “Beloved Community” we must remember them.
Photo Credit: The image above is a newspaper photograph, now property of the Birmingham Public Library, taken of the only stained-glass window left in its frame after the bombing. The face of Christ was destroyed in the bombing. I was grateful for permission to use this photograph as the cover photo of my book, Gospel of Dust.