Birmingham Sunday

This is the closest Sunday to the date of the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham in 1963. Members of a local KKK group bombed the building on Sunday, September 15th, 1963, which had been designated by the congregation as Youth Sunday. The explosion at the church killed 4 young girls and injured others.

The names of the four young women who were killed are Addie Mae Collins, Carole Robertson and Cynthia Wesley, who were all 14, and Denise McNair, who was 11.

The ‘Four Spirits statue’, designed by Elizabeth MacQueen, at Kelly Ingram Park in Birmingham, Alabama, depicting the four victims of the 1963 16th Street Baptist Church bombing. Fair use. This picture was retrieved from https://www.peoplesworld.org/article/four-little-girls-promises-still-unmet/

In my experience of teaching mostly traditional aged college students, very few of them are aware of the events of that day and how they are contextualized in the broader civil rights issues. This excerpt from a Democracy Now episode on the 50th anniversary of the bombing is an in depth interview with civil rights activist, professor and scholar Dr. Angela Davis. https://www.democracynow.org/2013/9/16/terrorism_is_part_of_our_history

Angela Davis grew up in Birmingham during this time and knew two of the girls who were killed in the church bombing. In this interview, she talks about the fact that violence, in particular violence rooted in racism, was very much the norm in Birmingham at the time. She also talks about the role of people in power in condoning the violence, which I think provides useful discussion for students, faith community members, and others to think about today. This interview was in 2013. A broad area of discussion could be comparing and contrasting the social environment between 1963, 2013, and now today. What is different in terms of the manifestations of violence rooted in racism? What is the same? What were the initial responses to the bombing of the church building from the federal government? Local government? White Christians? Other faith groups? What should have been the response? What do we see in the responses from each of these groups today? What should we see and expect from our leaders and ourselves?

The day after that bombing, a white Birmingham lawyer stood up at a lunch meeting of a local businessman’s club and asked “who is guilty of setting the bomb?” and then he responded “all of us” (meaning every white person in Birmingham). This speech led to death threats against him and his family, and they ended up having to leave Birmingham…but it was just the beginning of civil rights work for Charles Morgan, Jr. You can see excerpts from the speech, as well as more about the community’s response to it, in this piece from The Atlantic: https://www.theatlantic.com/national/archive/2013/09/the-speech-that-shocked-birmingham-the-day-after-the-church-bombing/279565/ It would be a good lead in to a discussion of the costs of speaking, compared to the greater costs of staying silent.

Finally, Birmingham Sunday, sung by Joan Baez, is a good representation of the power of music in storytelling. This youtube video includes historical pictures to provide some additional context https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ciMFp6ySJ-Y. I always ask students what is on their “social justice” playlist currently, and I share with them some of the songs I love that are related to social movements and social justice. Sometimes I play these songs on breaks throughout the semester (especially when I teach the class in a 3 hour block). I have found that using the music as part of our discussions supports our learning, gives us a bit of a mental break from having to be “on”, and it gives us a shared experience, even if a small one, to build on as we learn more about history and see it played out before us.

“People are trapped in history and history is trapped in them.” ~James Baldwin


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