Most Americans will not recognize the names and I would dare say that many do not even know about what happened in Birmingham Alabama 50 years ago today. At 1022 in the morning on September 15th 1963 a bomb exploded during the worship service at the 16th Street Baptist Church. Most people also do not know that before that beginning in 1955 there had been 19 other bombings of black churches and the homes of black leaders in Birmingham. Even before that Birmingham had become known as “Bombingham” because over 50 bombing attacks against blacks, black churches and black institutions in the years after the First World War.
Four young girls, three 14 year olds and one 13 year old were killed. Addie Mae Collins, Denise McNair, Carole Robertson and Cynthia Wesley lost their lives that day and 22 other church members were wounded in an attack carried out by members of the KKK and tacitly approved of by many political leaders including Alabama Governor George Wallace.
The church had served as a focal point of the Freedom Summer where Civil Rights activists and students from around the country had met, trained and organized to register blacks to vote. This made it a prominent target for violence.
Early in the morning of September 15th four members of the United Klans of America Frank Bobby Cherry, Thomas Blanton, Herman Cash and Robert Chambliss placed a box of 10 sticks of dynamite under the church steps near the basement. A time delay detonator was set o ensure that the church was filled when the bomb went off. The blast occurred as children were entering the to listen to a sermon, ironically entitled “The Love that Forgives.”
It was a heinous crime and an act of cold blooded premeditated murder which maybe a number of years before might not have made the news in much of the country. But this was 1963 and over the preceding months of the Freedom Summer many people across the nation had an eye on the South. The brutal attacks on many blacks, civil rights workers and student volunteers had raised the profile of the Civil Rights Movement and shown the ugly hatred towards blacks held by many Southerners hidden underneath the veneer of polite Southern hospitality.
Not only was the attack heinous, but the response of many in law enforcement at the local level and even at the office of FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover was criminal. Chambliss was identified by a witness and was not charged with the bombing, simply having a case of dynamite without a permit. He was fined $100 and given a six month jail sentence.
The FBI had investigated and discovered evidence against all four men but Hoover ordered the evidence not be provided to local or Federal prosecutors. However in 1971 Bill Baxley was elected Attorney General of Alabama, he re-opened the case and requested the FBI files. In 1977 Chambliss was indicted and convicted of first degree murder, he died in prison. Blanton was tried in 2001, convicted of four counts of murder and sentenced to life in prison. Cash died in 1994 with ever having been charged with a crime and Cherry was convicted in 2002, sentenced to life in prison and died in 2004.
The attack and the deaths of the four girls served as a catalyst in the Civil Rights Movement. in 1964 Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act. However it did not end the fight. Dr Martin Luther King Jr would die at the hands of an assassin’s bullet less than 4 years later. Many advances occurred. Many blacks have been elected to office, serve in the highest ranks of the military, two Colin Powell and Condoleeza Rice have served as Secretary of State, one, Eric Holder as Attorney General of the United States and one, Barak Obama elected as President. Black sports stars, actors and singers are celebrated as heroes among much of society.
One of my former co-workers from Georgia, a white Baptist minister and retired military chaplain noted that many whites may not be explicitly racists in interpersonal relationships with blacks, but have an attitude that blacks still need “to stay in their place.” He noted that he thinks that quite a few believe that many whites believe that this is a large part of the reason that President Obama is opposed and even hated by so many whites. It is not just politics or ideology and while those may play a role the root of it is racism.
But the sad truth is there still is an undercurrent of unrepentant racism in the country and not just the South. In fact many places in the South have seen greater advances in racial relations than other parts of the country. That is not to say that there are those who would attempt to disenfranchise blacks, some of the voting laws recently passed are designed to ensure that significant parts of the black population, specifically the elderly and students living away from home have greater difficulty voting. It is actually a more insidious method than past Jim Crow laws because the drafters of these laws hope to peel off just enough black and other poor or minority voters to ensure that they maintain power.
Not only is racial prejudice experienced by blacks, it is experienced by many Americans of Hispanic origins, some of Asian descent but also by those of Middle Eastern, Iranian, Pakistani or Indian descent. And yes, even people of racial minorities can be racist. Racism is an ugly part of our human condition and no matter who it is targeted against and who does the targeting it is wrong and needs to be fought.
The Southern Poverty Law Center http://www.splcenter.org lists 1,007 known hate groups operating across the country, including neo-Nazis, Klansmen, white nationalists, neo-Confederates, racist skinheads, black separatists, border vigilantes and others.
Too many people have died in this struggle to stop now. If today you read this before or after going to church, remember those four little girls who died at the hands of four murdering, racist Klansmen. Likewise remember that there are others out there full of hate who would not hesitate to do the same again and others who would actively support those efforts. Sometimes even in the name of God.
As for me I will fight it no matter who it is against.