On September 15, 1963, a bomb went off at the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama. Four young black girls, there for Sunday School, were killed when white racists decided to make a deadly point.
It's not that they were in the "wrong" place at the "wrong" time.
It's not that they'd done something wrong.
Their crime? They were the "wrong" color.
I was born and raised in Birmingham, and ten years old when this happened. I vividly remember this day. Mostly, I remember being confused. “How could someone do this...inside a church? To children?” The girls were close to my age (three were 15; one was 11), so I remember being sad.
I also remember being afraid. "Could this happen to me when I go to church?"
Now I'm able to look back on this event with what I hope is a wisdom of time and experience. I can put this tragic attack into the context of the culture of that time. For the most part, people of the South had an ingrained mentality of racism, though we didn't call it by that name. There was a handed-down tradition of presumed supremacy of whites over blacks. Generally, we didn't question it. It just...was. We might insist we didn't hate them, but preferred they remained apart from us. Segregated. They lived in their neighborhoods, they went to their schools, they worshiped in their churches. Everything worked fine, as long knew "their place" and remained content to remain there.
But our country was changing, socially, culturally and racially.
The message of Dr. Martin Luther King was resonating with many.
But as always in the midst of change, there was an active resistance by the majority establishment—an intense desire...need...to maintain the status quo. "The way we're always done it." The white majority had their rights, and clung to them tightly, worried that sharing rights would mean relinquishing rights.
I heard speeches by politicians, promoting discrimination.
I listened as grownups discussed...in disgust...the hubris of civil rights and equality.
Some of my teachers reinforced the need to keep our schools separate from theirs.
The pastor of my church kindly told us that "they have their churches" and they wouldn't feel comfortable in "our church."
I even remember sermons, assuring us that segregation was divinely ordained. (“The Bible is clear...”)
Often blatant, but sometimes subtle, the message was clear:
“Those people” want us to serve them, regardless of what we've been taught to believe.
“Those people” want to come into our restaurants. They want to sit anywhere on the bus. They want to shop in our stores, see a movie in our theaters.
“Those people” are demanding our rights.
“Those people” are insisting on equality. They want to be...just like “us.”
WE are the majority, and we voted. We passed laws to let "them" know what we think, how we feel, what we want. They should honor our laws, and the will of the majority.
Words that diminished, oppressed and disenfranchised.
Words that defined.
And ultimately, those dismissive, demeaning words took root in the hearts of angry white men, who made the choice to take devastating actions.
What were they thinking?
They must have felt they were "protecting" their way of life, regardless of the consequences. They obviously didn't see the folks in the church as people, just obstacles to be eliminated. Problems to be solved. Or at least, they intended to send a warning. A reminder keep them in "their place." (Ironically, it did the opposite.)
Personal Note: The verbs I'm using for these recollections are in the past tense only for relating my memories, not to suggest these attitudes are gone. Sadly, just the opposite!
Afterwards, there were attempts at justifications for this brutal act of murder, framed in scripted sorrow. Thoughts and prayers were abundant. Preachers and politicians were able to respond with consolation, in complete denial they had anything to do with such a horrific crime. There was manufactured outrage, all the while avoiding any semblance of a desire for change. “How could this happen?” was the spoken question of the day, but “How can we prevent this from happening again?” was ignored. Cultural apathy was disguised, for a short time, as shock and grief.
Then, it was time to move on. "Business a usual" was the implication.
The way things are is the way things should be. Should always be.
And no one took responsibility!
There was no proud admission by the KKK or the Aryan Nations.
Likewise, no racist politician held a press conference to announce, “My words caused this.”
No bigoted preacher stepped up and confessed “My words stirred up this violence.”
And people’s lives went back to normal. (Well, at least white people’s lives did.)
However, for many, “normal” had been redefined!
What was meant to deter change became a catalyst for demanding change. (Most historians consider this terrorist attack a turning point in the Civil Rights movement, leading to President Johnson passing the Civil Rights Act of 1964.)
A cowardly act of violence provoked courage to bring change
What was intended for evil against a few was used to seek good for many.
It's been more than 50 years since that bomb exploded.
But the repercussions of that explosion are still be felt, because the "reason" for the bomb is still a reality.
There have been many bombs since that day 54 years ago. And most have killed significantly more people in a single blast.
But for me, this was my first experience with such violence. It was close to home, and helped shift my perception, and how I respond to differences. (It would be several years—when I was in high school—that I actually got personally interested in and involved in civil rights.)
Today, as I pause to remember these four little girls, I have to boldly ask: Does any of this sound the least bit familiar?
Do we pay attention to extremist politicians, pundits and preachers talking about “those people” and using fear to create a “Them” and an "Other," is there the faintest echo of words from our past?
Are we listening as preachers use the Bible to justify subjugating women, violence against races, condemning/excluding LGBTQ people, or banning immigrants?
Did we learn anything from those who came before us?
The bomb was more than half a century ago, but can we still hear the blast?
But bigotry (and rhetoric) remains the same!
#BlackLivesMatter, then and now!
Today, I honor their memory.
Today, I mourn four precious lives cut short, and potential never realized.
Today, I recommit myself to work for change.
I will continue to reject those who promote bigotry, whether it's against women, blacks, Muslims, LGBTQ or immigrants.
I will remind myself and others of the lesson of history: hateful violence is born out of hateful speech.
I need to believe we can do better.
I want to believe we are better!
I know we must do better!
Act in Love.