On September 15, 1963, the 16th Street Baptist Church was destroyed by a horrific act of racial terrorism. Four young ladies, Addie Mae Collins, Cynthia Wesley, Carole Robertson and Denise McNair, died immediately, and 22 others were injured in the explosion caused by a bomb that had been planted on the church steps near the basement entrance. Robert Chambliss, then an active member of the Ku Klux Klan, was initially charged and found guilty of possessing dynamite, but was later retried, found guilty, and sentenced to life in prison. The FBI probed the case further in later years and were able to identify more participants, who have since been brought to justice.
Congress of Racial Equality and members of the All Souls Church, Unitarian march in memory of the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing victims, Image Credit: Thomas J O'Halloran,., photographer [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
This particular church had become a central meeting point for various civil rights activities and planning in Alabama. Birmingham was a significant focal point during the movement, and it is where Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. penned his infamous "Letter From Birmingham Jail" while serving time there. Birmingham, Alabama, had been nicknamed "Bombingham" because this church bombing was one of scores of bombings in the city in recent years. As word spread across the nation about this particular explosion, there grew a heightened awareness about conditions for African-Americans in the southern states. Support grew for the Civil Rights Act of 1964 in part because of this horribly violent event, and people of all races grew increasingly invested in moving race relations in America forward.
Today, I cannot help but think about the kind of progress we've made as a nation. As a mother raising a Black son, I am very much concerned with the racial climate of the society in which I'm raising him. I voted for President Barack Obama because I believed in his vision for America, and was proud to take part in electing the first Black president in the 230+ years of this country's existence. When I attended the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington last year, I wanted to take part in celebrating progress and calling people to action to continue the fight for freedom for all people. I participated in vigils and marched connected to the shooting deaths of Trayvon Martin and Rekia Boyd because I'm a mother concerned about the safety of her son. I was saddened today, because I read a story about a young African-American man gunned down by police after he knocked on the door of a White woman, seeking help after being in a car accident.
The 16th Street Baptist Church was bombed because people were afraid of what the community members were planning when they gathered there for meetings and services. It was bombed because people feared progress towards racial unity. It was bombed because people were afraid to move beyond their ignorance and bigotry and embrace a new era of co-existing in harmony with fellow citizens of all races and ethnic backgrounds. It was bombed because there were people who refused to accept that America can and should be a land of opportunity and freedom for all people.
Today, we see that fear is still a motivation for acts of discrimination and violent hate crimes. We read stories of how people are targeted because of things like their skin color, religious beliefs, or LGBTQ identities, and we're reminded that there still remain people who fear change and progress and who will stop at nothing to prevent it from happening.
Hope is what has kept us going. Hope has been what keeps us fighting for a better tomorrow. Hope is the strongest weapon we have to fight against ignorance, prejudice, bigotry, and hatred. But when that hope is attacked and jeopardized, it becomes harder to hold onto. On this day, I'm reflecting on where we once were and how hope has brought us to where we are now. We have a lot of work to do together as a nation, and I will continue to do my part, and I invite you all to do the same. Our children, many the same ages as the four girls who died in that tragic church bombing, depend on us to move this country forward in the next 50 years.
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