On Sunday September 15, 1963 Birmingham, Alabama changed forever. At 10:22 the members of the 16th Street Baptist Church were preparing for that morning’s service. The sermon topic planned for the morning: “The Love That Forgives”. Racial tensions had been on high alert in Birmingham for the last few months. Earlier that year Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and others were arrested for demonstrating in Birmingham. Bull Connor had already released the dogs upon the people. So many churches had been bombed that the city had been nicknamed “Bombingham” but luckily no one had ever been killed. Until this day, at 10:22 when the children’s choir was preparing for the service a bomb went off. Four girls, Addie Mae Collins, Denise McNair, Carole Robertson, and Cynthia Wesley, were killed instantly. Later that day, during the aftermath and confusion two other boys, Johnny Robinson and Virgil Ware, were shot. Six children, varying in age from 11-16, killed in one day and mainly for one reason, their skin happened to be black. They weren’t evil, they weren’t causing problems, they weren’t breaking the law. Four of them were preparing to take a leadership role at church. Their only crime was the color of their skin.
In the Eulogy at their funeral Martin Luther King said:
“These children—unoffending, innocent, and beautiful—were the victims of one of the most vicious and tragic crimes ever perpetrated against humanity. And yet they died nobly. 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 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 and the blatant hypocrisy of right-wing northern Republicans. They have something to say to every Negro 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.”
This tragic event is unimaginable. To try and visualize or imagine the pain is unbearable. To think that on Sunday night after the bombing, moms and dads were sitting in their children’s bedrooms in tears knowing their babies were never coming home. And the reason for the evil was the hatred of racism.
Yet King places us all on notice. In his Eulogy he calls out all of us who have stood on the sidelines and watched evil be perpetuated without ever raising our voices. He speaks out against all of us who sit by in our comfortable houses while around us evil abounds and we never lift a finger to help. He decries our attitudes of indifference and says to simply hate evil is not enough, we must actively work to rid the world of evil.
As we stood where the bomb went off and read King’s eulogy I was convicted. The words of the preacher hiding behind the stained glass windows cut to the heart. And I heard the words of the civil rights movement loud and clear, “a threat to justice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” The time to be silent is over, now is the time to speak out. Wrong is wrong, even if the wrong does not affect me personally. If I love my neighbor I must act.
On the memorial marker outside the church for the four girls who died a verse from the Joseph Story is quoted, “you meant this for evil, but God meant it for good.” The bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church was evil in every dimension. Yet God has used that moment to convict and inspire many to strive for justice. May the memory of these precious children challenge us to take a stand for the safety of all who are oppressed and mistreated.
Editors Note: This is part of a series of reflections that I have had since going on a tour of civil rights sights during February of 2013. This is partially my way of processing what I am learning and also a place to enter into dialogue about ways for us as Christians to engage the future.