Sunday, September 15, 2013

16th Street Church--I Remember On This Anniversary

In loving memory of four little girls murdered September 15, 1963

Denise McNair, age 11
Carole Robertson, age 14
Addie Mae Collins, age 14
Cynthia Wesley, age 14

This story began on an airplane heading north. My seatmate was a distinguished black lady. We began to talk. “Do you live in Birmingham?” “Oh, yes,” she said. “You wouldn’t be a member of the 16th Street Church, would you? I’ve preached there several times.” “I used to be a member of that church,” she replied. “Were you a member during the bombing?” For a moment there was a long silence. And then she said, “My daughter was one of those girls killed that day.” I still remember her exact words: “Her name was Carole with an ‘e.” She told me that she was getting dressed for Church that morning when her husband came home with the terrible news. “Life was different, far different after that,” she said. She told me about the funeral. The other three little girls had a mass funeral at the church and the great King would speak. But she said she didn’t want all that hoopla—and so they had a quiet service just for them and their friends.

She was a great lady. After that airplane ride we struck up a friendship. I asked her to speak in my Church on Black History Month and she agreed. But as we got closer to the date she became sick and could not speak. I called her one day and asked her if I could interview her for an article in the Birmingham News for Mother’s Day. “Dr. Lovette, I don’t usually do that—but I will do it for you.” After the article came out she called me that afternoon and said, “Dr. Lovette, it was wonderful—even if it was about me.”

They finally caught a couple of those responsible for the bombing years later. Mrs. Robertson was asked to testify at one of the trials. They wheeled her in to the courtroom and she testified, “This would have been my daughter Carole’s birthday.” And she told the story of the loss and the sadness.

Later Spike Lee interviewed her for his movie, “Four Little Girls.” Her face filled the screen toward the end of the film. Spike asked her, “Can you forgive the men that did this?” In her gravelly voice she said, “I forgave them a long time ago. It was hard but I have learned if you don’t forgive that stuff will choke you to death. Life is just too short to hang on that.”

She called me one day and said she had just gotten back from the Academy Awards. Spike Lee had asked her out and was his guest. “Spike and I,” she said, “had the best time. I’m glad I went,” She died not long after that.

Today is the fiftieth anniversary of that terrible day when those four little girls were killed. In one of the stained glass windows of the church the face of Jesus was blown out. This sad event was a hinge-turning moment in the civil right’s movement. The old industrial city some had been called, “Bombingham” was also known for old mean Bull Connor, the police chief and his fire hoses and dogs set loose even on little children.

But the years have passed. Many that lived to tell the story of the horror and heartbreak are gone. Surely God has a sense of humor—Bull Connor’s old Methodist Church is now served by a black minister. Birmingham now has its fourth black mayor. Condoleezza Rice came from Birmingham. Colin Powell was married in that city. The Jackie Robinson movie was made in Birmingham. That terrible bombing became the catalyst for President Lyndon Johnson to push civil rights legislation in 1964 after the assassination of President Kennedy.

At the funeral for the other three little girls, Martin Luther King said, “God still has a way of wringing good out of evil. And history has proven over and over again that unmerited suffering is redemptive. The innocent blood of these little girls may well serve as a redemptive force that will bring new light to this dark city.” And he was right.

The city has a long way to go—but they have come so far from that terrible day August 15, 1963. If you were to go to Birmingham today you would find a great Civil Right’s Museum just across the street from the church. After moving from photographs and videos and bombed out buses and burning crosses and so much hatred portrayed—the museum tour ends with a huge plate glass window—you look out and you see the Sixteenth Street Church.

If you go inside that church you get a better view of the wonderful window that dominates the whole sanctuary. It is a stained glass rendering of a black Jesus with his arms outstretched. Underneath are the powerful words: “You do it to me.” The children of Wales began a drive to take up money and the country joined their efforts and they presented this gorgeous rendering to the church and to the world.

We still have a long way to go. We have spilled enough blood. We have hated far too long. But we have elected President Obama twice. And though the hatred and venom that pours out from so many is still with us, our President serves with distinction and with honor.

And so on this day I remember my conversation on an airplane from Birmingham going north. I remember Mrs. Robertson and I can still hear her voice and see her face. She is still an inspiration to me as I think of the arduous progress we have made and how the future, even with all our problems, looks much, much better than the past. 

(This article was printed in the Op Ed section of The Greenville News (SC) Saturday, September 21.)

                                --by Roger Lovette:

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