September 15, 1963 was a dreadful day in America. It was an especially brutal day in Birmingham, Alabama. Just a few weeks after the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, when Dr. King spoke of “The Dream” and peoples’ hopes for civil rights victories soared, Birmingham, Alabama reminded America how painful and costly the struggle for civil rights would be.
Members of the KKK placed a bomb made of fifteen sticks of dynamite under steps near the basement of the 16th Street Baptist Church. Someone telephoned the church at 10:22am and said: “Three minutes” to the Sunday School secretary. In less than one minute, the bomb exploded killing four girls: Addie Mae Collins, Cynthia Wesley, Denise McNair, and Carole Robertson. More than twenty people were injured and hundreds of people, rushed to the church. The pastor, Reverend John Cross, had been prepared to deliver a sermon titled “Love That Forgives.”
Later in the same day, Virgil Ware, a thirteen year-old Black child, was riding on the handlebars of his brother James’ bike. They were going to a scrap yard to find a bike for Virgil, his first bike. Two white boys on a motorcycle drove by them and one of those boys shot Virgil in the chest and face.
Still just a few hours after the church bombing, Johnny Robinson, a sixteen year old, was shot in the back by a Birmingham police officer. He had gathered with other Black teenagers at a gas station near the church. The police drove up to them, he and his friends ran into an alley, and Johnny was shot in the back.
It is important to remember these young people. It is important to remember their names, their families, the young people they were becoming as their lives were cut short. It is important to recall that they were unable to fulfill whatever beauty and love might have bloomed in their lives. We do not know the goodness they were not able to offer the world.
It is also important to remember them so that we do not underestimate the power of hatred. When people believe a lie like white supremacy so deeply that they are willing to kill– and to kill children– we are all offered a lesson that we dare not forget: white supremacy shows itself in a hatred that is shockingly vicious. We cannot allow ourselves to underestimate the indifference of white supremacy’s hatred.
Fifty-six years ago, Birmingham, Alabama was seared into the nation’s consciousness with these terrible murders. Today, we see white supremacists marching boldly in many American streets. We see websites spreading their lies and hatred to a new generation of young people who are often susceptible to false and dangerous fears. If we hope to build a just and peaceful world, we must remember those whose lives were lost in the struggle for justice, even when we thought those struggles were already won.