August 10, 2020

A Domestic Terror Act We Must Never Forget


Denise McNair, Carole Robertson, Addie Mae Collins, Cynthia Wesley

Yesterday was the fiftieth anniversary of the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama that killed four young black girls and wounded twenty-two other children. You can read a heart-rending description of the morning’s events HERE.

This act of domestic terrorism, designed to strike fear into the hearts of those who were calling for an end to segregation, took place just two weeks after Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream Speech” in Washington and two months before President John F. Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas, Texas. In addition to the blood shed at the church, two other black youths in Birmingham were killed on that same day, one by a policeman and another by two white youths.

Former Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice was an eight-year old girl in Birmingham in 1963. In a recent interview, she reflected on that Sunday’s disturbing events:

My dad’s church was only about two miles from 16th Street Baptist Church, and so it was like the ground shook. And for kids in Birmingham my age, I was eight, it was — how could these people hate us so much?

In yesterday’s New York Times, an editorial on “Birmingham Sunday” mentioned an important fact about what life and prevailing opinion was like in Birmingham at that point in history:

…the civil rights struggle was not simply a victory of good over evil, of the righteous defeating the Klansmen who gave “Bombingham” its bloody reputation. The struggle was good against “normal” — against the segregation that was seen as the natural order of things, buttressed by government, tradition and the law. In this, Dr. King and his allies were the radicals.

This bombing galvanized that burgeoning civil rights movement, as Jon Meachem notes in a piece for Time:

The attack on the 16th Street Baptist Church was an act of terrorism that stands as one of the great turning points in American history. Together with the March on Washington in August, the September murder of the four little girls opened the way for Lyndon Johnson’s successful push for civil rights legislation in 1964, in the aftermath of the November assassination of President Kennedy.

Eight thousand people attended a funeral service for three of the four girls, but no city officials came. Dr. Martin Luther King preached; his message was called: “Eulogy for the Martyred Children”

…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 [Audience:] (Yeah) 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 (Yeah) and the blatant hypocrisy of right-wing northern Republicans. (Speak) They have something to say to every Negro (Yeah) 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.

And so my friends, they did not die in vain. (Yeah) God still has a way of wringing good out of evil. (Oh yes) And history has proven over and over again that unmerited suffering is redemptive. The innocent blood of these little girls may well serve as a redemptive force (Yeah) that will bring new light to this dark city. (Yeah) The holy Scripture says, “A little child shall lead them.” (Oh yeah) The death of these little children may lead our whole Southland (Yeah) from the low road of man’s inhumanity to man to the high road of peace and brotherhood. (Yeah, Yes) These tragic deaths may lead our nation to substitute an aristocracy of character for an aristocracy of color. The spilled blood of these innocent girls may cause the whole citizenry of Birmingham (Yeah) to transform the negative extremes of a dark past into the positive extremes of a bright future. Indeed this tragic event may cause the white South to come to terms with its conscience. (Yeah)

And so I stand here to say this afternoon to all assembled here, that in spite of the darkness of this hour (Yeah Well), we must not despair. (Yeah, Well) We must not become bitter (Yeah, That’s right), nor must we harbor the desire to retaliate with violence. No, we must not lose faith in our white brothers. (Yeah, Yes) Somehow we must believe that the most misguided among them can learn to respect the dignity and the worth of all human personality.

In Meachem’s article, he notes that Birmingham has come a long way since that terrible morning in 1963. William Bell, a fourteen year old African-American member of the church who heard the blast at his home and rushed with his family to the scene, is now mayor of the city. He credits the sacrifice of those girls as a catalyst, prompting changes that eventually allowed him to serve as Birmingham’s leader.

jesus windowAnd the Christian people who suffered violence and loss that day have learned to forgive. Sarah Collins Rudolph, sister of Addie Mae Collins, has said:

At first, I was angry. I was very angry when I was younger. Later along in my life, I knew that I had to forgive these people because God forgave me of my sins. Holding hate on the inside, it only keeps you sick and angry, and so I just had to forgive those men.

One odd occurrence in the event that many noted: in the only stained glass window at 16th St. Baptist Church not destroyed by the explosion, the face of Jesus was blown out while the rest of the glass remained intact. Surely he had withdrawn his face at this heinous act — a face streaked with tears! One can only imagine the anguish of him who said of those who trouble little ones: “It would be better for them to have a huge stone hung around their necks and be drowned in the bottom of the lake” (Matt. 18:6, CEB).

We who have survived since 1963 have seen some good come of this evil, but we must not forget the cost. Four children, their families, and a community of people gathering to worship God through the Prince of Peace suffered unspeakable violence at the hands of men who served as agents of evil that day. Though we attempt to forgive and though we take solace in the overcoming power of the Almighty, the faces of four young girls still haunt us and their lament reverberates wherever injustice continues:

My eyes are worn out from weeping; my stomach is churning.
My insides are poured on the ground because the daughter of my people is shattered,
because children and babies are fainting in the city streets.

…The children that I nurtured, that I raised myself, my enemy finished them off.

– Lamentations 2:11, 22


  1. Joan Baez sings about this in “Birmingham Sunday”:

  2. It’s all too easy for some of us to forget (and I include myself among them) that for a significant segment of our population, acts of terrorism are nothing new.

    • Well said. And it’s worth keeping in mind that the acts (bombing, lynchings, beatings, intimidation, voter suppression) were done by people who would have (and may still do) strongly and without hestitation identifed themselves as Bible-believing Christians.

  3. Travis Sibley says

    Thanks for a great reminder of the not so distant past, Mike.

    I had never before read the eulogy Dr. King delivered. His wisdom continues to amaze me!

    • Yes. I also continue to be amazed at the power of King’s words. Such eloquent and powerful (not to mention courageous) words are sorely needed today.

    • But, given that our ‘sound-bite’ culture has given way to a ‘texting-LOL’ culture, I doubt than many have the attention span to follow or appreciate King’s eloquence. If it can’t be said in 64 characters, or explained with a short (and cute) youtube video, it probably won’t get much attention.

  4. Thank you for sharing these thoughts. Fr. Ernesto also shared his thoughts along with a video of Bill Cosby commenting at his blog (See blogroll for link).

  5. David Cornwell says

    This is a partial autobiographical narrative of my pilgrimage through these years. Maybe it’s out of place here. I hope not. If you don’t like this kind of account, don’t read it. I won’t be offended.

    I came into early adulthood in the 1960’s (my 20’s). In my own mind I always hated the racism I observed everywhere, but totally failed to understand the depth of its evil. The little town where I attended most of my elementary and high school years was in southern Ohio, on the Ohio River. From the time we moved there from the other side of the river, in West Virginia, the rumor was that black people were prohibited from living in that Ohio town, even from spending the night. None lived there and none attended our school. This attitude, to me as a youth, seemed wrong.

    Then I went to a Christian college in Kentucky, very conservative and Wesleyan. In Lexington I got my first taste of any kind of southern culture, even though it was north of real Dixie. The college, which was near Lexington, was segregated, except for one or two black students from Africa, coming to America to be educated as the result of Christian mission outreach. Many of the students, and much financial support came from deep south states. There was almost a prohibition against discussing this contradiction in school policy. In a sociology class I did manage to breach the subject once or twice, but the main response was silence.

    Later, after graduation, a year in Washington, D. C. early in Kennedy’s term, marriage, and a couple of children I became a police officer in Lexington (this was in later 1960’s). Our country was in tremendous upheaval during that time, the result of the assassinations, war, racial upheaval and rioting. In some ways I absolutely loved this job, even though I constantly saw the very worst parts of the human condition. However it also held up a mirror to my own soul, and the picture could be ugly. The law could never save us. It couldn’t even save me. I left police work, but in some ways in remains a first love.

    For the most part the evangelical church was always behind, taking up the rear when it came to societal evil. It mostly ignored the demonic principalities and powers, preaching instead an individualistic salvation, that would bring personal comfort, and keep most things as they were.

    The white evangelical church was more likely to support George Wallace and “law and order” than speak to the real evils of the times. While I was still a cop, Wallace, running for President, came to Lexington and spoke at the coliseum. It was packed. I was in a protective detail outside the building. After his speech he came through the line, stopped, looked into my eyes, shook my hand, and said, “When I’m elected President I’ll turn the country over to you guys.” That was enough to scare me away from his politics forever!

    And so preachers like Martin Luther King took up the slack, proclaiming truth to power, suffering unspeakable evils, and leading their people through suffering to a better day. Little girls, young students, and black preachers did for us what we in our complacency refused to do. I always wonder– what are we refusing to see today? How are the principalities and powers clouding our vision? What demonic structures need the exorcism that only God can deliver?

    However when we attach our politics to a certain philosophy, be it liberal, conservative, or somewhere between, we will always be in dangerous territory, for the demons lurk in dark places, and do the work of death. Where power is entrenched, the possibility of evil is there, in shadow and ugly. The evangelical church’s attachment to the politics of war, guns, and corporate power is as ugly as the unbridled endorsement of sexual chaos and abortion, free and easy, on the other side. And racism is still with us, not in the same ways, but not far away. The Church, it seems to me, is at its best unattached to the state and its corrupting power, but speaking truth to its people. We must be a people of the Kingdom.

    The best I can do these days is pray, “Our Father…”. I pray it more and more and believe it to be the most powerful and transformative prayer ever uttered. This is the best I can do, but not all I can do.

    • Thanks for sharing. I wasn’t born until ’76, but personal stories like this help me picture the world my parents and grandparents have lived in.

      • David Cornwell says

        Everything about that era was not bad. But here was a convergence of problems at the same time. The cold war was going strong, the Kennedy assassinations, the King murder, the Vietnam War was ramping up. Free sex (oxymoron) was the new thing. People were being fed political propaganda which bred fear rather than offering hope. Law and order was not working. And then Richard Nixon was elected President. He was symptomatic of the age.

        • My personal opinion a lot of the hassles and terrors of the time came from the veil of hypocrisy of those in power became exposed via the changes in the media landscape. TV primarily. Before TV most people not in a major city got their news via the local paper. Call it censoring. Call it editing. The owners of the local paper determined what most folks knew. TV blew that up. And uh, oh. The emperors had no clothes. But continued to claim they did. Things went downhill/uphill from there.

          I lived in Lexington from 74 till the end of 79. In many ways one of the nicest places I’ve ever lived.

          • David Cornwell says

            You lived there during the exact years I went back to school, seminary at Asbury. I graduated in 1979.

            I loved Lexington then, and still do. Marge is from Versailles, just west of Lexington. My kids were born there. I like being in the University atmosphere, and seminaries nearby. A man who found Christ in my student church now the pastor of a UMC church in Lexington. If I were up to moving one more time, I’d go back for my final years.

        • Headless Unicorn Guy says

          Everything about that era was not bad. But here was a convergence of problems at the same time.

          Some years ago, a political blogger with the handle EjectEjectEject coined the phrase “1968: When Sauron got the Ring.” Because a whole lot of stuff just seemed to go crazy all at once around then.

    • ” The Church, it seems to me, is at its best unattached to the state and its corrupting power, but speaking truth to its people. We must be a people of the Kingdom.”


      • From the photographs, the sweet faces of those little girls look out at us and we wonder ourselves, like the martyrs under the altar in the book of Revelation:

        ‘How long, O Lord?’

    • Beautiful.

  6. That comment was worthy of a post, Dave. Thanks.