Baptist Church on September 15, 2015
Today marks the 52nd year since the bombing of
the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama that killed four
little girls, in an act described by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., as “one of
the most vicious and tragic crimes ever perpetrated against humanity,” that
also injured 22 others.
We stand on sacred
ground. I feel a presence here that is similar to the experience in other
places visited where horrific events occurred such as Hiroshima, Japan where
the first atomic bomb was dropped, killing 174,000 people, or Goree Island and the
Door of No Return where millions of Africans were enslaved and shipped to
Addie Mae Collins, Cynthia Wesley, Carole Robertson and
Denise McNair were ages 11- 14 when they were slain. If they were alive today,
they would be ‘baby boomers,’ part of the post-World War II generation, who
have witnessed unimaginable political, social, economic and technology
changes. Most likely they would be
parents, grandparents or even great grandparents…they would be active church
members, artists, entrepreneurs, librarians, scientists or teachers…and valued
members of their community.
Instead, their lives ended during a tragedy that transformed
Just three weeks before their deaths, actor Ossie Davis had
described the 1963 March on Washington as “A year of ecstasy and triumph.” They
may have even watched the historic event on television or listened on the radio
and been inspired by Dr. King’s visionary “I Have a Dream” speech about a
better future for “little black boys and girls.” I recall my own attendance at
that historic March and the realization that it too was a turning point in a
struggle that captured the attention of the entire world and still offers
lessons about liberation for people around the globe.
They were surely familiar with Dr. King and his battle
against discrimination in Birmingham including the Children’s Crusade launched
in May 1963 to desegregate lunch counters, restrooms and other public
facilities. They were surely aware of the reign of terror by Police Chief Bull
Connor and segregationist Governor George Wallace.
As a baby boomer born in the North, I vividly recall the
national impact of the slaying. Indeed, Addie, Cynthia, Carole and Denise are
linked to all who gather here this morning and to the republic. Some among us may still bear the scars of that
bombing and we must pray for healing in every sense.
Sadly though, black church violence is part of America’s
history and is an ongoing story in the North and South. The most recent tragedy
in Charleston (Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church) reflects “a pattern
of random racialized violence against religious institutions,” says Valerie
Cooper, associate professor of black church studies at Duke University. As we
now know, this follows a prior burning of the same church in the 1800’s
involving a controversy surrounding Denmark Vesey, one of the church’s
organizers and a leader of a major slave rebellion in Charleston.
The irony is that the events that took these lives happened
in a church…a place where you thought you’d feel safe.
Yet, the church has often been a target as the place where
civil rights leaders and the community convene. History shows that black church
arsons are a recurring theme when 73 black churches were burned, firebombed or
vandalized in the 1990s and President Clinton created the National Church Arson
Fast forward to 2008 when a church in Springfield, Massachusetts
burned hours after the 2008 election of President Barack Obama. In the late 1990s, the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute collaborated with the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum's "Lift Every Voice" program to provide support to African American churches that had been burned.
We must still educate citizens and work to promote peace and
goodwill. As an adult who now occupies an office overlooking the historic
Sixteenth Street Baptist Church, I’m reflecting on the tremendous debt of
gratitude that I and millions of others in the North, South, East and West owe
to Addie, Cynthia, Carol and Denise for their sacrifice which is priceless.
Every day at the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute begins
for me with a moment of silence for these four little girls: when I open the
blinds and gaze through the window at the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church and
at the painting on the wall behind my desk entitled “The Flowers of the Fall of
1963,” by artist Ronald Scott McDowell (2007) that depicts the four girls and
the two young boys, Virgil “Peanut” Ware, 13 who was shot and killed by a white
youth while sitting on the handlebars of his brother’s bike, and Johnnie Robinson,
16, shot and killed in the back by a policeman for allegedly throwing rocks at
a car on that same September day in 1963.
Looking back, we know that children played a key role in the
civil rights movement – in the home, in the streets and in the jails; inspiring
adults to break down barriers to equal access, withstanding hoses and dogs and
serving jail time, often with hardened criminals.
Because of their courage and sacrifice, we have indeed made
progress. Passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was an immediate by-product
followed by passage of the Voting Rights Act a year later.
Birmingham today welcomes visitors at the Fred Shuttlesworth
International Airport, Mayor William Bell, the city’s fourth African American
elected to this office continues to promote urban revitalization and Police
Chief A.C. Roper is spearheading innovative community policing programs.
Subsequent legislative and policy changes are linked to this era of the civil
rights movement and to Birmingham in the 1960’s.
However, we must avoid the risk of complacency and continue
to enlighten each generation about civil and human rights by exploring our
common past and working together in the present to build a better future, which
is the mission of the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute.
These history lessons can help us to process the modern day
acts of senseless violence such as the death of Trayvon Martin and countless
other young black men or the slayings of nine individuals at a Prayer Meeting
During our lifetime, there are too many examples, all over
the world, where children have become iconic global symbols of inhumanity…Anne
Frank, Emmett Till, Addie Mae Collins, Carole Robertson, Cynthia Wesley, Denise
McNair, Virgil Ware, Johnnie Robinson, and recently the Syrian refugee boy whose
body washed ashore while his parents were attempting to flee from persecution
These senseless deaths of innocent children diminish us all
and remembering is important as a reminder to keep the passion for justice
alive and to never forget the price that has been paid for our freedom and
dignity. To that end it is incumbent upon each of us to make the most of every
day, to savor each moment, to love and respect one another in a genuine effort
to build community and to let our light shine, let it shine, let it shine, as a
beacon of hope and peace.
I conclude these reflections with a poem by a friend and
former poet laureate of Ohio, James Kilgore, entitled “That Black Reef,” to
remind us of the precious gift of life.
That Black Reef
They tell us each evening,
Sometimes by fire,
Sometimes by dancing earth,
And sometimes by burning winter winds,
That he who is three may be halfway there
And he who is one hundred may be seven
Years from shore.
We cannot know how soon the waves
Will leave us on the beaches
Of that dark land;
We cannot know how many days or nights
We have to love or hate;
We cannot know how many summers or
We have to weep or laugh upon the waves
Before the boat sails
To that black reef.
Thank you. This is the day!
Remarks made by BCRI President and CEO Andrea L. Taylor on September 15, 2015 during the commemoration of the 52nd anniversary of the bombing of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church.