Sunday, September 15, 2013

That Birmingham Sunday

I think it’s important to remember the past, good and bad, to know where we’re going. Sunday, September 15, 1963—exactly 50 years ago to the very day—was a very bad day in the history of the US Civil Rights Movement. On that day, the most heinous act of racist violence was committed. But, it turned out to be a turning point.

Early that morning, four racist terrorists planted a bomb under the steps of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama. Wikipdeia picks up the story:
“At about 10:22 a.m., twenty-six children were walking into the basement assembly room to prepare for the sermon entitled ‘The Love That Forgives,’ when the bomb exploded. Four girls, Addie Mae Collins (age 14), Denise McNair (age 11), Carole Robertson (age 14), and Cynthia Wesley (age 14), were killed in the attack, and 22 additional people were injured, one of whom was Addie Mae Collins' younger sister, Sarah. The explosion blew a hole in the church's rear wall, destroyed the back steps and all but one stained-glass window, which showed Christ leading a group of little children.”
It was a terrible time in the US South, especially in Alabama and in Birmingham. Racists were everywhere—and in control. There had been a series of racist bombings in Birmingham, and a week before the attack, Alabama’s then-Governor, George Wallace, told the New York Times that to stop integration Alabama needed a "few first-class funerals."

After the bombing, the city of Birmingham offered a reward of $52,000 for information leading to capture of the bombers. Wallace added another $5,000, which lead Dr. Martin Luther King to wire the governor, saying: "the blood of four little children … is on your hands. Your irresponsible and misguided actions have created in Birmingham and Alabama the atmosphere that has induced continued violence and now murder." That was an understatement.

At the time, no one was convicted of the murders. Justice would have to wait another 15 years until a new state attorney general reopened the cases and obtained the first murder conviction. By 2002, three of the four original suspects had been tried and convicted (the fourth died before he was charged).

However, the bombing brought new attention to the civil rights struggle, and it’s credited, at least in part, for helping to secure Congressional approval of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. So, the “first-class funerals” of those four little girls actually ultimately led to the end of segregation, though that would take many years.

The US, not just the South, is still living with the legacy of official racism. It will take many more decades before it starts to finally fade away—if, indeed, it ever does. But the murder of four little girls seared the conscience of a nation in a way that nothing else did or could; in a sense, they took our places, so we must remember those four little victims.

History is, by itself, neither good nor bad, but simply a record of what has happened. It’s up to each of us in every generation to decide anew what we will make of our inherited legacy. Will we seek to atone for the wrongs? Will we seek to make the world rise above what it has been? Or, will we allow the sins of the fathers to be visted upon the grandsons? The choice, always, is ours.

Remembering the past helps keep us from repeating it. 50 years ago today, four little girls lost their lives because of adults’ hatred. We should remember those little girls, honour them, and redouble our rsolve that such infamy should never be repeated. Can we do it? I have hope, if sometimes only that.

“Those who cannot remember the past,” George Santayana said, “are condemned to repeat it.” Have we learned? Do we remember?

The low-resolution image above [Source] is of the four girls killed during the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing. Clockwise from top left: Addie Mae Collins (aged 14), Cynthia Wesley (aged 14), Carole Robertson (aged 14) and Denise McNair (aged 11). The use of this image is contended to be a fair use, since it is used solely for educational purposes in a not-for-profit publication, and is necessary for cultural and historical purposes, and the material value of the possible copyright is not believed to be lessened by its use here. Since the image is limited web-resolution, and only a small portion of a copyrighted work is used, it does not limit the copyright owner's rights to sell the image in any way.

Related: Joan Baez – Birmingham Sunday


rogerogreen said...

Don't know if you can see it there, but if you can get the msnbc.mtp.com footage of Mett the Press on August 25, 1963, w Roy Wilkins & MLK Jr. you should.

Arthur (AmeriNZ) said...

A better link is this one: http://www.nbcnews.com/video/meet-the-press/52829825#52829825 (not sure where your link was going…). I'll definitely watch it (and, I can, btw).

rogerogreen said...

Ah, I was doing it from memory. I think I'm looking at the irony of the questions to King and Wilkins vis a vis the violence to these girls.

Arthur (AmeriNZ) said...

Yeah, and until this year, I wasn't aware that government officials were worried—or maybe sure—that the 1963 March on Washington would be violent. I was far too young at the time to be aware of it, and nothing much was ever said in school as I was growing up. Maybe it was all still too raw: I graduated high school less than ten years after Dr. King was assassinated. But history is always there, patiently waiting for us to learn.