It happened on a Sunday in September while children attended Sunday school. As the children finished their lessons, they were heading upstairs to hear the scheduled sermon that day, “A Love that Forgives.” But at 10:22 a.m., on Sept. 15, 1963, a bomb ripped through the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Ala. The bomb was planted by the Ku Klux Klan in a heinous act of opposition to racial equality, equal rights and full participation by African Americans in U.S. society. Killed in the blast that morning were 11-year-old Denise McNair, and 14-year-olds Addie Mae Collins, Cynthia Wesley and Carole Robertson. Many others were injured and the damage, both physical and spiritual, reached far beyond Alabama.
The Birmingham bombing called into question the very soul of America and the principles of democracy and equal justice under law which were enshrined in the constitution. Fifty years later, we must remember what happened on that awful Sunday in September not only because of the unrealized promise of such beautiful young lives, but because we must continually reflect on the questions of who we are as individuals and as a collective society. In the ensuing half-century, what has changed, what has remained the same, and what must we do to realize the ideals of full citizenship and equality for everyone in American society?
The Klan’s decision to bomb Sixteenth Street Baptist Church was a calculated move. Churches in Black communities historically have been cornerstones of Black religious, cultural and political life. This was especially so of Sixteenth Street Baptist Church during the Civil Rights Movement. That the bombing took place in Birmingham also was not coincidental. Long known as the most segregated city in the country, Birmingham became a beacon of civil rights activism in the South, as well as a rallying point for resistance to racial inclusion.
Notoriously, in January 1963, Alabama Gov. George Wallace took office exhorting, “segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever!” Despite the Supreme Court’s decision in Brown v. Board of Education in 1954, Alabama refused to desegregate public schools until 1963, when courts again ordered the state to do so. In June 1963, Gov. Wallace physically blocked Black students’ entrance to the University of Alabama and relented only when President John F. Kennedy federalized the Alabama National Guard to enforce their enrollment. The image of Birmingham, Ala., in 1963 seared in many people’s minds is that of nonviolent Black protestors pelted by water hoses and viciously attacked by dogs at the behest of the police and fire departments. While police chief Eugene “Bull” Connor has come to symbolize Southern White racism, Connor was merely enforcing the system of institutionalized racism that entrenched racial inequality throughout the city, state and Southern region.
These violent encounters were surpassed by individual and collective acts of heroism in the demand for justice and equality. Very often, young people were at the forefront of nonviolent protests. During the Children’s Crusade that started in May 1963, young people streamed out of meetings at Sixteenth Street Baptist Church to participate in marches and boycotts. They were arrested and imprisoned until the jails filled beyond capacity; yet, still they kept coming, marching, and protesting, defying not only law enforcement, but in some cases, their elders.
Determined civil rights activity in Birmingham led to numerous acts of violence by the Klan. Bombings were so pervasive the city became known as “Bombingham” and Black neighborhoods had names like “Dynamite Hill.” The homes of civil rights activists Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth, Rev. A.D. King (younger brother of Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.), and businessman A.G. Gaston were bombed in 1963. The home of attorney Arthur Shores (father of Judge Helen Shores Lee) was bombed twice within the two week period between Aug. 20 and Sept. 4, 1963, causing serious injury to his wife.
Despite the perpetual terror campaign, the bombing of the church that Sunday morning in September seemed unfathomable. The deaths of the four girls and the racially-motivated deaths of two Black male youth – Virgil Ware and Johnny Robinson – on the same day catapulted the civil rights movement into higher gear. Many civil rights historians credit these events with the accelerated passage of the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Voting Rights Act of 1965.
This Sunday, as we celebrate the lives and legacies of those who gave their lives, their youth, and their aspirations for the cause of racial justice and equality, let us use the day to examine the soul of America. We must commit ourselves anew. We must continue the struggle for freedom and justice in our gratitude for their ultimate sacrifice.