“The events in Birmingham… have so increased the cries for equality that no city or state or legislative body can prudently choose to ignore them.”
—President John F. Kennedy, June 1963
Today’s experiences centered around Kelly Ingram Park in Birmingham, Alabama. Named after the first sailor in the United States Navy to be killed in World War I, the park has been preserved as a, “Place of Revolution and Reconciliation.” Just outside of 16th Street Baptist Church, the area served as a central hub for civil rights rallies, protests, and demonstrations. Often referred to as Bombingham during the 1960s, Birmingham became the epicenter of the nation’s civil rights movement.
On Sunday, September 15, 1963, five girls changed into their choir robes and prepared to sing songs of joy for the pastor’s scheduled sermon, “A Love That Forgives.” Earlier that morning, members of the United Klans of America planted dynamite under the steps of 16th Street Baptist Church, nearest the basement. Soon after an anonymous verbal message stating, “three minutes,” the bomb detonated, blowing a seven foot hole into the church’s wall and causing a two feet deep crater to form in the basement. Destroying the church’s steps and sending shards of stained glass into the air, the explosion killed four and wounded twenty. Of the murdered were four young girls ranging from age eleven to fourteen, whose bodies were described as unrecognizable, “stacked on top of each other and clung together.” Following the bombing, violence escalated and at least five businesses, numerous cars, and other personal properties were firebombed.
Fully aware of the amount of discomfort, uneasiness, and eeriness to come, I walked toward the steps of the church. As I neared the main entrance my hand brushed along the brick siding and I pictured myself in what began as an ordinary 1960s Sunday. Making my way inside, I took the carpeted steps, a signature of Southern churches, into the sanctuary. Having already walked through parts of historic Birmingham, emotions were high and feelings of sadness were gradually increasing.
Sitting on the balcony, I looked toward the pulpit and choir seats where Addie, Carol, Cynthia, and Denise should’ve and would’ve sang during that summer day. I imagined the girls in their Sunday dresses, bobby socks, and Sunday-go-to-meeting shoes with fresh pressed curls and smiles out of this world. Looking at the congregation, I saw two little girls clad in their Sunday’s best outfits giggling to each other as the Pastor welcomed visitors and church members.
With Spelman College’s Glee club singing hymns of praise in the background I looked around as sunlight glinted through the stain glassed windows, once completely blown out by dynamite. I began imagining the sanctuary filled with dust, pages of the Bible strewn across the floor, a summer heat mixed with flames, and sadness.
Then it hit me.
I could’ve been Addie Mae Collins
I could’ve been Cynthia Wesley
I could’ve been Carole Robertson
I could’ve been Denise McNair
The more I imagined the historic day, the more I pictured myself. Growing up in church, I wore flowery Sunday dresses, white bobby socks, and my favorite dress shoes. Thinking back to my attire just ten years ago, I would’ve mimicked the appearance of Addie Mae and the other girls. Had I been alive during a different time period, that truly could’ve been me.
Emotions suddenly became too much to handle. Almost feeling distressed, I left the ongoing service. Over the course of the past year I’d done my own research on church bombings in the south, but something about placing oneself within the environment created an emotion to great to bear. Making my way back downstairs and into the fresh air, the simple ability to even leave the church without fear became prevalent. Unlike the four girls and countless others lost during the civil rights movement, I had the privilege of getting up and removing myself from the situation— a topic that deserves its own personal blog post.
After standing on the church steps for a few more moments, I continued my walk through Kelly Ingram park. As I walked on top of the brick sidewalk, reflection and imagination continued. I couldn’t help but think about what life would’ve been like just fifty years ago. Children as young as five, middle school kids, and college students put all fear aside and gathered together in protest of segregation. Their passion for justice was met with vicious police attack dogs and high-pressure fire hoses strong enough to tear the bricks off of buildings. If these hoses could destroy concrete and mortar structures, I hate to think of the damages they had on the skin of growing girls and boys. If not fire hoses and police dogs, it was fatal shotguns and bombs.
It is interesting to compare today’s feelings and experiences with what was occurring in the 1960s. Churches are still being destroyed and many Black men and women are killed for little reason. The parallels are alarming, but necessary.
Think about it. If your local park isn’t safe, where can you go? If your home isn’t safe, where can you go? If your church isn’t safe, really, where else can you go? Unfortunately, I don’t know the answer, but I look forward to discovering a solution, soon and very soon.