By Scott Buttram, Publisher
On September 15, 1963- fifty years ago today- an otherwise tranquil Sunday morning was shattered by the explosion of a bomb at Birmingham’s Sixteenth Street Baptist Church. Four little girls, Addie Mae Collins, 14; Denise McNair, 11; Carole Rosamond Robertson, 14; and Cynthia Wesley, 14, were murdered by a Ku Klux Klan bomb solely because they were black. There was no other reason.
Three KKK members were eventually convicted for their murder. Only one remains alive and he will die in prison.
The civil rights movement did not begin in 1963 nor did it begin in Birmingham. The movement had been in full swing for years and had spread throughout the United States in every direction. Cities from Chicago to Birmingham and all points in between had seen marches and demonstrations by African-Americans demanding full citizenship and equal treatment under the law. But we would be hard pressed to find a city that handled it more poorly than Birmingham.
In Birmingham, Dr. Martin Luther King met his ideal foil in Eugene “Bull” Connor. The Birmingham city commissioner was was the perfect combination of racist brutality and ignorance for King to use to highlight the struggle that blacks faced in simply trying to live the American dream in their own land.
When the people of Birmingham had had enough of Connor and his cohorts they changed the form if city government from commission to city council and voted him out of office. The Klan was undeterred and proceeded with their bombings and killings. On the same day that the church was bombed, Virgil Ware and Johnny Robinson were gunned down in separate incidents. Hate abounded.
Eventually, the Civil Rights bill became law and Birmingham along with the rest of America has staggered forward for half a century in an effort to assimilate all citizens into society. Even as vestiges of discrimination linger, there is hope and there is progress. It is very much a different world, but one that still needs forward movement.
It seems with every passing generation, progress is made. For my generation of baby boomers, it is as difficult to understand segregation as it is to understand slavery. While both may have been accepted in their time, the entire concept seems so distant today. It just seems so wrong that it is difficult to conceive anyone ever believing that it was acceptable.
The greatest hope for a brighter future lies in what I see in my children- our children- as new generation after new generation take ownership in the world they inhabit. It is increasingly becoming their world. And, as my generation moved forward from our predecessors to create a better existence for all, so do our children surpass us in understanding and acceptance of everyone. Therein lies the greatest opportunity for true equality.
I watched as my now 26-year old son Jase chose friends without regard to skin color. When he coached a youth basketball team for his church and had the audacity to invite neighborhood boys to play despite their skin color, he met resistance. I marveled at his resolve and his refusal to stand down. To him, it was simply illogical not to have them as part of the church and the team. He won. On the court and, more importantly, in life.
As I consider the four little girls from 1963, I cannot help but see my 6-year old daughter who will awake today and giddily dress for Sunday school and church, just like four little girls did 50 years ago.
Without a care in the world, she will go to worship just like Addie Mae, Denise, Carole, and Cynthia did in 1963. She has rarely missed a Sunday at church in her life. Unlike the four little girls in Birmingham, Sara Marie has never spent a Sunday in a segregated congregation. It is a foreign concept to her.
One day next week, there will be a daddy-daughter trip to Kelly Ingram Park where I will try to explain to her how things were. I will show her the Four Spirits memorial which was unveiled yesterday in honor of the four little girls. It is critical to acknowledge and understand the past, but it is equally important not to live in the past. That is another concept with which the city of Birmingham has often struggled.
I want her to know, I want my son to know, I want all of our young people to know that our future is in their hands. The future is bright. The responsibility is awesome. Are we raising a generation that is up to the task? I believe we are.
Today, as we rightly remember the sacrifice of four precious children, let’s not dwell on the past, but focus on the future.