The Birmingham Church Bombing: How Will We Remember?

When Emily Raboteau, daughter of famous historian Al Raboteau, traveled with a group of undergraduate students to Birmingham, Alabama, she met Chris McNair, a man haunted by the past. McNair is the father of Denise, who died at the tender age of 11, fifty years ago on September 15, 1963—one of four girls killed by the bomb that rocked the foundations of the city’s Sixteenth Street Baptist Church.

Only three weeks after the March on Washington, when Martin Luther King Jr. had shared his dream of a future where young white boys and black boys, white girls and black girls, would hold hands, Denise McNair, Addie Mae Collins, Cynthia Wesley, and Carole Robertson were denied that future.

In her remarkable Searching for Zion, published earlier this year, Raboteau describes McNair’s shrine to his daughter’s memory: “a pair of black patent leather shoes and matching purse, a charm bracelet, a tiny two-inch child’s Bible, a blue floral handkerchief, and the jagged piece of concrete removed from her skull.” When one of the students asked if Mr. McNair had forgiven the white supremacists who took his daughter’s life, his answer was righteous rage.

God, McNair said, “would destroy Alabama by wiping it clean with His hand.”

In the realm of our public memories of the civil rights movement, could anything be more un-King-like? Wasn’t the civil rights movement about reconciliation and hope? Wasn’t it called the March on Washington for Jesus and Forgiveness? (Nope, it was for “Jobs and Freedom.”)

Three weeks ago, we were celebrating the March on Washington; we were watching and listening to King as we do each January on Martin Luther King Jr. Day, a holiday created in the conservative era of Ronald Reagan’s presidency. This year was precious, for it marked the fiftieth anniversary and we commemorated the day with another march, televised like the one in 1963. But on this occasion we discussed and judged it in Twitter feeds, Facebook accounts, and on a host of 24 hour news programs.

How do we balance King’s dream with McNair’s nightmare in our supposedly post-racial and now-digital age? We still live in a country of freedom dreams and violent nightmares.

The nation has a black president and the outpouring of joy in 2008 was hard to quantify, but young black men are still murdered and imprisoned in epic numbers. We have rising integration in schools and businesses, but Christian churches lag behind tremendously—and often fuel the fires of other racial conflicts and controversies.

And as we go, the digital and media realms allow for increased chatter about all of it, leaving some of us to wonder if the democratic cacophony actually encourages hate.

After that church bombing a half century ago, Americans seemed to have more questions than answers. With the tools of their time they spoke into the sadness. King went to Birmingham and eulogized three of the deceased girls. He told the mourners that the girls “did not die in vain” and the crowd responded “Yeah!” He told them that “God still has a way of wringing good out of evil” and the people said “Oh yes.” But there would be no Lazarus moment—Mary and Martha would still have to mourn.

When Reinhold Niebuhr addressed the bombing, he sighed that “we have to admit first of all that we have miserably failed to give the Christian message a real content.” The white churches, Niebuhr intoned, “have failed.” Anne Moody, the young civil rights activist, made a striking declaration: if God was white, she was done with him. But if when she got to heaven she found out that God was black, she would “try my best to kill you.”

In 1964 folk singer Joan Baez lamented the limits of song in Richard Fariña’s “Birmingham Sunday“:

A Sunday has come,
A Sunday has gone,
And I can’t do much more
than to sing you a song.

How will future generations remember our time? Fifty years from now, my guess is that most Americans will once again remember the March on Washington with pride. Those who hear about the Birmingham church bombing will experience a sense of sadness. “Birmingham Sunday” will still be available on Youtube (or whatever new technology there is) and Sixteenth Street Baptist Church will still host memorials. The March will loom larger, but Birmingham will still haunt the nation.

What great sermons, theological statements, social activist spiritual ruminations, or musical interventions will be recalled of our trials and tribulations? Will there be a song to lament Trayvon Martin that will move us fifty years from now? Will there be a preacher who stands amid the crisis and prophetically reveals a way from despair to hope? And in what media will it be recalled: cinematically? musically? can web pages hold these kinds of memories?

I hope we can remember Denise McNair, Addie Mae Collins, Cynthia Wesley, and Carole Robertson not simply for dying, but also for living. They played, they giggled, they went to school and church. We may not have videotape of them leading a march or Facebook accounts where they had posted pictures, yet they can still be present in our collective imaginations as more than the tragedy of collateral damage. When we consider making a better America, perhaps we can make it for young boys and girls who are very much like them.

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eblum@mail.sdsu.edu'

Edward J. Blum is the author of several award-winning books on religion and race in the United States. His latest, co-authored with Paul Harvey, is The Color of Christ: The Son of God and the Saga of Race in America.