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Drawn back to Birmingham

Returning to the 16th St. Baptist Church, where four young lives ended on a Sunday morning in 1963

By BILL MAXWELL
Published May 4, 2003

BIRMINGHAM, Ala. - I had spent the week in Tuscaloosa at historically black Stillman College and had to drive back to the airport in Birmingham. I had been to Birmingham several times during the last four years, but, on this warm April afternoon, I knew that I had to revisit a tiny corner of what was considered at one time to be the nation's most segregated city.

I was pulled back to Sixteenth Street Baptist Church, which I had not seen since Sept. 26, 1963, a few days after the funerals that forever changed the face of civil rights worldwide.

I was a freshman at a Texas college on Sept. 15, 1963, when word spread across campus that a bomb had killed four innocent black girls in the basement of their church. The girls - Addie Mae Collins, Denise McNair, Carole Robertson and Cynthia Wesley - were wearing their "Youth Sunday" best as they prepared their lessons for the 11:00 service when the bomb exploded next to them.

Against our college president's advice, six schoolmates and I piled into an old Chevy and drove to Birmingham. We wanted to be where civil rights history was being made. Our president, T. Winston Cole, thought that we would get into trouble and "bring shame on Wiley (College)." We did not get into trouble. That single trip, however, changed my life by officially bringing me into the civil rights movement.

My schoolmates and I had joined the Southern Christian Leadership Conference before returning to Marshall, Texas. We were proud to belong to the Rev. Martin Luther King's organization, and we became actively involved in marches, voter registration drives and housing and sanitation protests.

The Sept. 15 bombing occurred as a result of raw anger in the city following a federal court order to integrate the public schools. Gov. George Wallace defied the order and persuaded his followers, which included public safety commissioner Eugene (Bull) Conner, to follow his lead. Wallace was quoted as saying that Alabama needed a few "first-class funerals." Such demagoguery and defiance by the state's highest-ranking official gave Birmingham's bombers the green light.

On that quiet Sunday morning, members of the Ku Klux Klan struck.

But the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church bombing was not the city's first. Just days before the church tragedy, the home of a local black attorney was bombed for the second time in two weeks. Birmingham already had earned the unofficial title of "Bombingham." Incredibly, from 1947 to 1965, more than 50 bombings, aimed at African-Americans, occurred in the city, which also became known as "Fortress Segregation." To this day, many blacks, including me, still call it Bombingham.

If Wallace's and the bombers' intention was to stifle the budding civil rights movement, they miscalculated badly. The murder of those girls became a galvanizing force. Locally, the then-disparate civil rights groups unified. Nationally, the movement became an American movement as the faces of the dead girls personalized previously sanctioned injustice. And, almost instantly, reporters from around the world descended on Bombingham. Journalists, such as Gene Patterson, wrote powerful essays and columns that even touched the hearts of many Southerners who heretofore had ignored the plight of black people.

About the funeral at the church, a newspaper article of the time commented: "More than 8,000 mourners, including 800 clergymen of both races, attended the service. No city officials braved the crowd to attend." King spoke at the service, and President John F. Kennedy (who would be gunned down a few months later) spoke on television to the nation.

After my most recent visit to the church, I went across the street to the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute. This experience was almost as sobering as my first trip to Auschwitz and Birkenau. In candid and vivid displays, the museum's galleries capture the spirit and courage of the countless individuals who, during the 1950s and 1960s, challenged the bigotry and racial discrimination of U.S. society.

Today, as our nation campaigns for freedom for peoples in foreign lands, every American - especially white people who want to forget the past and Jim Crow's evil legacy - should visit the institute and Sixteenth Street Baptist Church. They represent the best and the worst of the United States. They show that only a few years ago, we were a people who dispensed freedom and justice with our fingers crossed - if we dispensed them at all.

I returned here to remind myself that I, as a journalist and as an African-American, must keep reminding my fellow citizens that forging equality in the "land of the free" is still hard work, that we must not turn back the clock or let anyone else do so. My visit reminded me, for example, that some of the nation's public schools are nearly as racially segregated as they were in 1963. The past has returned with a vengeance.

Sixteenth Street Baptist Church is at the intersection of 16th Street and 6th Avenue. Tours are given from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., Tuesday through Friday and by appointment on Saturdays. Groups should call (205) 251-9402 to make arrangements.

[Last modified May 4, 2003, 02:01:25]


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