17. September 2015 09:41
by Administrator

Reflections by Andrea L. Taylor, President & CEO, Birmingham Civil Rights Institute

17. September 2015 09:41 by Administrator | 0 Comments


  Sixteenth Street 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 America.

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 a nation.

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 Task Force.  

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 in Charleston.

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 and violence.

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

Or drifts

To that black reef.

       James Kilgore


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.

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