“Who is Responsible?” The Bombing of 16th Street Baptist Church and Racist Violence Today

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Friends of Padre Steve’s World

Tonight, something else from the archives as I do some work on my book. Even so it is very pertinent as we see White Supremacists rove in heavily armed groups, threatening and even attacking and killing Blacks and other minorities, disrupting civil rights marches, threatening Public Health officials, elected leaders, and even police who stand in their way.  In 2014 Emmanuel AME Church in Charleston was the target of a young White Supremacist who committed a mass murder there after sitting with members in a prayer meeting. A primarily Black Baptist Church where I live was threatened  with being bombed last week,  This time by by a White man from North Carolina who used racial slurs and threats on the message he left on their answering machine. Then there is the police violence directed at individual Blacks, as well as militarized police attacks people of all races protesting those murders, in one instance at the wish of the President.

So I am returning to a different time, over a half century ago that bears too much resemblance to today not to revisit. This is about the KKK bombing of the Sixteenth Avenue Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama on September 15th 1964. However, unlike today the event triggered no outraged, and the FBI under J. Edgar Hoover, refused to help prosecutors with evidence that they had against the defendants.

So, until tomorrow,

Peace,

Padre Steve+

On September 16th 1963 a young Southern White lawyer in Birmingham Alabama spoke these words after a black church was bombed and the police attacked peaceful protesters:

“from anger and despair, from frustration and empathy. And from years of hopes, hopes that were shattered and crumbled with the steps of that Negro Baptist Church.”

Most Americans will not recognize the names and I would dare say that many do not even know about what happened in Birmingham Alabama 57 years ago today. At 10:22 in the morning on September 15th 1963 a bomb exploded during the worship service at the 16th Street Baptist Church. It was one of the most brazen attacks against a church in the modern era, and men who claimed to be “Christians” committed it.

MCNAIR ROBERTSON COLLINS WESLEY

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. Twenty-two other church members were wounded in an attack, which was carried out by members of the KKK and tacitly approved of by many political leaders including Alabama Governor George Wallace. Why were they killed and why were the others wounded?

The answer to that question is easy. They were murdered for the crime of being black, and the crime of their church serving as a focal point of the Civil Rights movement. Just five months before Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. had been arrested while leading a campaign of protest and civil disobedience in the city and in its jail where he secretly penned his famous Letter from a Birmingham after he saw a joint article published by eight prominent White clergymen, who issued what they referred to as a Call to Unity. In it they denounced the peaceful demonstrations, led by “outsiders” a swipe at King and called for Birmingham’s Blacks to withdraw their support from King and wait for legislators and the courts rather than demonstrate. They also praised Bull Connor’s violent attack with police dogs on the protestors as “calm restraint.”  In January 1963 the same clergymen published “An Appeal for Law and Order and Common Sense.”  In that letter, published shortly after George Wallace’s “Segregation today, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever” speech, these men and others tried to stake out a middle ground. They were uncomfortable with protest, peaceful or not but had done nothing to stop the violence other than ask their White congregations not to resist any court rulings granting it.

King could not let that go. In one section of the letter, a true classic of American patriotic dissent King wrote:

“I must make two honest confessions to you, my Christian and Jewish brothers. First, I must confess that over the past few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action”; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a “more convenient season.” Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.”

Likewise, most people today, including many blacks do not know that before the bombing of this church, that since 1955 there had been 19 other bombings of black churches as well as the homes of Black leaders in Birmingham that preceded it. But even before that outbreak of violence, 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.

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 at the hands of the KKK and its political and police allies.

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Early in the morning of September 15th four members of the United Klans of America went to the church as it was still dark. 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 to ensure that the church was filled when the bomb went off. The blast occurred as children were leaving Sunday School and going up the stairs to the sanctuary to listen to a sermon, ironically entitled “The Love that Forgives.”

The attack was a heinous crime and an act of cold-blooded premeditated murder that 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 opened the eyes of people across the nation to what was happening in the South. The brutal attacks on many blacks, civil rights workers and student volunteers during that time 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.

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Blacks protested and were met with a massive police response coordinated by Governor George Wallace that brought about more violence, and more dead blacks. The violence perpetrated by the police was similar to police responses to peaceful protestors so many times over the past few years following the deaths of Black men, women, and children.

The next day, a young white lawyer, Charles Morgan Jr.; a true Southerner by right and heritage spoke to the White Businessman’s Club of Birmingham. He was thirty-three years old and had an up and coming law practice.  His words were forceful and to the point and he did not mince words. Instead of simply asking why as so many in Birmingham were doing, the young attorney  began his speech with this poignant remark and kept on going.

Four little girls were killed in Birmingham yesterday.

A mad, remorseful worried community asks, “Who did it? Who threw that bomb? Was it a Negro or a white?” The answer should be, “We all did it.” Every last one of us is condemned for that crime and the bombing before it and a decade ago. We all did it.

A short time later, white policemen kill a Negro and wound another. A few hours later, two young men on a motorbike shoot and kill a Negro child. Fires break out, and, in Montgomery, white youths assault Negroes.

And all across Alabama, an angry, guilty people cry out their mocking shouts of indignity and say they wonder “Why?” “Who?” Everyone then “deplores” the “dastardly” act.

But you know the “who” of “Who did it” is really rather simple. The “who” is every little individual who talks about the “niggers” and spreads the seeds of his hate to his neighbor and his son. The jokester, the crude oaf whose racial jokes rock the party with laughter.

The “who” is every governor who ever shouted for lawlessness and became a law violator.

It is every senator and every representative who in the halls of Congress stands and with mock humility tells the world that things back home aren’t really like they are.

It is courts that move ever so slowly, and newspapers that timorously defend the law.

It is all the Christians and all their ministers who spoke too late in anguished cries against violence. It is the coward in each of us who clucks admonitions.

We have 10 years of lawless preachments, 10 years of criticism of law, of courts, of our fellow man, a decade of telling school children the opposite of what the civics books say.

We are a mass of intolerance and bigotry and stand indicted before our young. We are cursed by the failure of each of us to accept responsibility, by our defense of an already dead institution.

Yesterday while Birmingham, which prides itself on the number of its churches, was attending worship services, a bomb went off and an all-white police force moved into action, a police force which has been praised by city officials and others at least once a day for a month or so. A police force which has solved no bombings. A police force which many Negroes feel is perpetrating the very evils we decry. . . .

Birmingham is the only city in America where the police chief and the sheriff in the school crisis had to call our local ministers together to tell them to do their duty. The ministers of Birmingham who have done so little for Christianity call for prayer at high noon in a city of lawlessness, and in the same breath, speak of our city’s “image.” . . .

Those four little Negro girls were human beings. They have their 14 years in a leaderless city; a city where no one accepts responsibility; where everybody wants to blame somebody else. A city with a reward fund which grew like Topsy as a sort of sacrificial offering, a balm for the conscience of the “good people”. . . .

Birmingham is a city … where four little Negro girls can be born into a second-class school system, live a segregated life, ghettoed into their own little neighborhoods, restricted to Negro churches, destined to ride in Negro ambulances, to Negro wards of hospitals or to a Negro cemetery. Local papers, on their front and editorial pages, call for order and then exclude their names from obituary columns.

And, who is really guilty? Each of us. Each citizen who has not consciously attempted to bring about peaceful compliance with the decisions of the Supreme Court of the United States, every citizen and every school board member and schoolteacher and principal and businessman and judge and lawyer who has corrupted the minds of our youth; every person in this community who has in any way contributed during the past several years to the popularity of hatred, is at least as guilty, or more so, than the demented fool who threw that bomb.

What’s it like living in Birmingham? No one ever really has known and no one will until this city becomes part of the United States.

Birmingham is not a dying city; it is dead.

After the speech he knew that he had little support, he began receiving death threats directed at him and his family. His law practice collapsed, and rather than remain as a target, he and his family left Birmingham.

Not only was the attack on Sixteenth Street Baptist Church 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. Hoover refused to investigate, and although a witness identified Chambliss, he was not charged with the bombing; instead he was charged for having a case of dynamite without a permit. He was fined $100 and given a six-month jail sentence.

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Thought FBI agents had investigated the crime and discovered evidence against all four men, Hoover ordered the evidence not be provided to local or Federal prosecutors. So for eight years the crime was covered up.

However in 1971 Bill Baxley was elected Attorney General of Alabama. Baxley re-opened the case and requested the FBI files, which had been suppressed by Hoover, who had died in 1972. 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 without 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 President Lyndon Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act, the following year the Civil Rights Act.  However, those did not end the fight for equality, and others would die in its aftermath, including Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. who died at the hands an assassin named James Earl Ray, less than 4 years later.

Since the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1964 and the Civil Rights Act of 1965 many blacks have been elected to local, state and federal offices or served in some of the highest ranks of the military, judiciary, and at the Cabinet level. Two, Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice have served as Secretary of State, two, Eric Holder and Loretta Lynch, as Attorney General of the United States; one, Clarence Thomas, as an Associate Justice of the Supreme Court; one, Susan Rice, as National Security Advisor, as well as the current Secretary of Housing and Urban Development, Dr. Ben Carson. Finally one, Barak Obama was elected as President of the United States. There is a high probability the the presumptive Democratic Party nominee to oppose President Trump in November, former  Vice President Joe Biden will chose a Black woman as his Vice President running mate. Since it is widely believed that Biden sees himself a transitional President, that if he is elected that one of the women will at some point either inherit his duties should he become incapacitated or die in office, or that in 2024 he will pass the baton of leadership to his Vice President.

But despite these advances, racism is still quite prevalent in this country, not just the systemic racism, and pretend that it doesn’t exist racism, but the open and unabashed race hatred, that during the term of President Donald Trump seems to be getting both more open and violent as its proponents, unleashed and unhindered who, with good reason believe that have a supportive President in the White House go about terrorizing wherever they go.

One of my former co-workers from Georgia, a White, yet progressive  Southern Baptist minister and retired military chaplain noted that many whites may not be explicitly racists in their interpersonal relationships with blacks, but have an attitude that when it comes to places of power, that blacks still need “to stay in their place.” He noted that he thinks that for many whites who think this way,  that this is a large part of the reason that President Obama was opposed and even hated by so many Whites. It was not just politics, policy or ideology, it was blatant in your face racism. Obama was a Black man in the White House, he had overstepped his social standing.  While politics may play a role the root of the hatred of him, it is racism, admitted or not, that drove it. Honestly, I cannot for the life of me any White man occupying the office of the President receiving similar treatment.

But the sad truth is there still is an undercurrent of unrepentant and deeply embedded racism in the country, and not just in the South. In fact many there places in the South have seen greater advances in racial relations than other parts of the country, despite the actions of White Republicans in the region to gerrymander elections and to disenfranchise Black voters since the Roberts Court gutted key provisions of the Voting Rights Act of 1964. 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 the past Jim Crow laws because the drafters of these laws hope to keep just enough black and other poor or minority voters from voting to ensure that they maintain power. Some of the men that drafted or supported these state laws designed to disenfranchise voters have openly admitted that fact.

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, people of all races, including racial, ethnic and religious minorities can be as racist and violent as the men who bombed the 16th Street Baptist Church 57 years ago. Racism is an ugly part of our human condition and no matter whom it is targeted against, and who does the targeting, it is wrong and needs to be fought.

In its 2019 report the Southern Poverty Law Center http://www.splcenter.org listed 940 active hate groups of all types operating across the country, including neo-Nazis, Klansmen, white nationalists, neo-Confederates, racist skinheads, black separatists, border vigilantes and others. (See the Hate Map herehttps://www.splcenter.org/hate-map) The number is down from recent because a number of more the virulent White Supremacist and militia groups have gone underground, shut down websites and social media pages.

Too many people have died in this struggle to stop now, even as their deaths continue to mount. If 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 in the name of “Law and Order” and  sometimes even in the name of God.

As for me I will fight it racism and violence of all types, especially against those who have been the victims of racism and violence for over 400 years. There are times that I wish I had gone to law school rather than seminary. Maybe after I retire I will do that or take up an advanced degree in Criminal Justice.

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                                                                  Charles Morgan Jr.

Charles Morgan died in 2009, but after he left Birmingham he went on to lead a remarkable life, especially in his commitment to Civil Rights and Justice. The New York Times obituary noted:

“Among his many cases as a civil rights lawyer, Mr. Morgan sued to desegregate his alma mater, the University of Alabama; forced a new election in Greene County, Ala., that led to the election of six black candidates for local offices in 1969; and successfully challenged racially segregated juries and prisons. After the civil rights movement began to subside, Mr. Morgan, as a leader of the American Civil Liberties Union, fought three celebrated court cases involving protests against the Vietnam War.

He represented Muhammad Ali in his successful court fight to avoid being drafted. He represented the civil rights activist Julian Bond in the early stages of an ultimately successful lawsuit after Mr. Bond had been denied a seat in the Georgia legislature because of his antiwar views. And he defended an officer when he was court-martialed for refusing to help instruct Green Berets headed for Vietnam.”

We cannot ever let ourselves forget that it was supposedly Christian men who bombed a church and killed those four little girls, and that as long as all of us fail to live up to our responsibilities such things will happen again. If we do not, we are as guilty as those who throw the bombs, shoot the bullets, and those preachers, pundits and politicians who deny the fact that these things are still commonplace. This is especially true in the Trump era.

Yes, my friends, we too will be at least as guilty as the brazen killers who continue to try to kill the dreams of those who are not like them. I will fight for the oppressed and always seek to tell the truth and present facts as facts, and I hope that I will be as committed to stand for the rights of the oppressed and for justice as did Charles Morgan.

Peace,

Padre Steve+

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