It happened today - September 15, 2015
On September 15, 1963, a homemade bomb exploded during Sunday morning services at 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, killing four young girls. It was a turning point in the civil rights struggle. And how could it not be?
Fifteen sticks of dynamite were planted in the basement by bigots furious at a recent federal order to integrate the Alabama school system. It was the third church bombing in Birmingham in the 11 days since that order, and the target was chosen because it was not merely a major black church but also a meeting place for civil rights leaders including Martin Luther King Jr. And the bomb “worked” in the sense of exploding, killing people, and spreading shock and fear. But it failed dramatically, and as far as I can see was bound to, because it was so transparently evil. Especially when and where it was carried out, its evil was utterly and unmistakably transparent.
Alabama was then a leader of resistance to civil rights under governor George Wallace, who later ran for president, in 1968, on a thinly veiled white supremacy ticket. But it was also a profoundly Christian state. And once four moronic Klansmen framed the issue of civil rights as “Would Jesus side with people blowing up kids in church or with the kids?” it was essentially over.
That’s not to say that the bombing immediately changed the most hardened of hearts. Indeed, when thousands of protesters assembled at the scene of the murders, Governor Wallace sent police and state troopers to disperse them. And that night two black adult males were killed, one by police and one by vigilantes. But world attention focused on the incident and despite bluster and screeching, in their hearts people knew the act was indefensible. So if it made sense in the context of white supremacy, it too must be indefensible.
It is fashionable to say that little or nothing has changed on race in the United States. I consider this a snide, mean-spirited counsel of despair. Yes, it should not have been necessary in the 1960s because it should have changed centuries earlier. But in the 1960s it really did change (and to be fair, white churches in the South were among the first to change, many in the 1950s).
To be sure, it changed slowly. The aftermath of this bombing and other such acts of brutality was the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and, more importantly, a change in hearts and minds. But prosecution of the guilty parties was obstructed at many levels including by FBI chief J. Edgar Hoover. The last conviction came in 2002, 39 years after the fact, and to some extent justice delayed is always justice denied. But in a larger sense, the justice that flowed from this horror was in the changing of hearts and minds.
Including that of George Wallace, who survived a crazed, apolitical assassination attempt in 1972 but was paralyzed from the waist down. He had already declared in 1972 that he no longer supported segregation and after experiencing an evangelical conversion in the late 1970s he repudiated segregation and bigotry and was re-elected Alabama governor in 1982 with substantial black support.
Nothing can bring back those four murdered girls, whose names were Addie Mae Collins, Carol Denise McNair, Carole Robertson and Cynthia Wesley. The lives they might have led, the things they might have done, the children and grandchildren they might have had all vanished in an instant in that deadly blast. And yes, there is still hatred and racist violence today. But the racial landscape in the United States has been transformed.
Once Americans saw segregation and bigotry as evil, they turned against them as fully as humans ever manage to turn against evil. And that wicked, stupid bombing of 16th Street Baptist Church on September 15, 1963 was a significant landmark in their voyage away from that tormented part of their past and their culture.