Fifty Years From Birmingham

This morning as I drove to mass, I heard this segment on NPR. I hadn’t realized beforehand, but today is the 50th anniversary of the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing in Birmingham, Alabama. Which killed four little girls. In a church. Sunday, September 15, 1963: The event has always stuck out to me as exceptionally horrible. Layer upon layer of horrible.

I can only barely, a little bit, understand how people could have fought so hard to maintain a system of segregation that is (to my eyes) so obviously unjust. I assume that fear played a role – fear of change, fear of losing power. I think those fears have motivated an awful lot of horrible over the course of human history.

I understand less how people could escalate their resistance to change to the point of undertaking violence. How does one make that leap from using speeches and meetings and rules and laws (however unjust) to causing physical damage to a person or his property? I can only assume that the original seed of fear must have been long overtaken by anger. And I think anger poisons people.

But I don’t understand at all, not in the least, how people could bring violence to a church. How could any person, who has ever possessed even a morsel of faith or morality, bomb a church? On a Sunday morning? On the church’s youth Sunday, when a bunch of little girls were in the bathroom, excitedly preparing themselves to take visible roles in that morning’s church service? No purely human emotion helps me understand that one. Even anger isn’t sufficient.

I can only see evil. I can only surmise that people let evil in when they decided to nuture their fear. That the evil grew with their anger, each feeding the other. And that evil finally made itself obvious in that horrible act. A church. Four innocent children. Preparing to worship God. Evil must have rejoiced.

I cried as I drove to mass this morning, re-learning the story of the four little girls. I cried because I knew it was unjust; I knew it was wrong; I knew how unfair it was to those girls; I knew it must have torn apart their mothers’ hearts; I knew it had impacted so many more people than the victims themselves; and I knew that evil had had a say.

It’s a sobering thought on which to end my Sunday. As I drove to mass this morning, I hoped that my pastor would acknowledge this horrible anniversary. I wanted to feel uplifted. I wanted us to make some effort to remember what happened to those girls, to make a statement that their lives mattered. It didn’t happen. In my little corner of the world, no one seemed to remember.

But I hadn’t remembered either, not before that NPR segment. Which is why I write this post. With it, I’m issuing my own little remembrance. In these last few minutes of Sunday, September 15, 2003, let’s remember what happened exactly fifty years ago in Birmingham. Let’s say a prayer for those who lost their lives. Let’s say another for the family and friends who suffered their loss. And let’s say one more for the many who lost something less tangible that day. Because when evil scored with that horrible act, so much was lost.

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