It was thirty years ago today, a hot September Sunday in Birmingham, Alabama. I’d been invited to deliver the memorial sermon at the 16th Street Baptist Church on the 30th anniversary of the bombing that the late Walter Cronkite called “America’s awakening” to the soul of the nation’s Civil Rights Movement.
Through the fifties and earlier sixties, the Civil Rights Movement had been an uncertain hope by which Black Americans sought their human and civil rights. Uncertain because the road to equality was often paved with more white violence, Southerners fueled by hatred and a fear of the changing social order. Uncertain because even nonviolent Whites looked upon the movement with a quieter but no less insidious state of mind: indifference. Then came the bomb planted by “Dynamite” Bob Chambliss and a few KKK friends. On September 15, 1963, an explosion left four dead girls and one shocked nation.
The invitation I received thirty years later was itself a demonstration of forgiveness and grace. It came from a Black congregation whose place in history was written in the blood of its children, a request that I preach at the annual memorial service — me, a white, Jewish, HIV-positive woman.
“No invitation to speak has honored me more than yours,” I began, “to remember with you the grief that exploded through this sanctuary thirty years ago….” Seated before me were parents who’d identified their daughter’s bodies and more than a dozen congregants who’d been injured in the bombing. We’d gathered to remember and pay homage to Addie Mae Collins, Denise McNair, Carole Robertson, and Cynthia Wesley — four little girls lost to the hell of fire, rubble, and hatred.
My sermon that morning, “To Worship in the Ashes,” was based on the Old Testament story of Job who’d lost everything he loved and still gave thanks. He’d been encouraged to curse God and die. “But instead of profanity,” I said, “Job offered praise. In the place of grief, he clung to grace. ‘The Lord gave and the Lord has taken away, blessed be the name of the Lord.’”
It’s now 2023. Earlier this week I re-read the sermon I delivered in my mid-forties, and I wondered what we’ve achieved (or not) what in the intervening years.
Watching Spike Lee’s powerful “Four Little Girls,” I saw again what racism can do. I recalled Isabel Wilkerson’s historic note, “African-Americans were mutilated and hanged from poplars and sycamores and burned at the courthouse square, a lynching every three or four days in the first four decades of the twentieth century.” I wondered how far toward equality and progress we’ve actually come in the thirty years since my visit and sixty years since Dynamite Bob’s.
The bombings that marched across America have largely been replaced by shootings which are no less deadly or terrorizing. Blood still runs through our school rooms and playgrounds, our churches and concerts. In 1963 Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., came to Birmingham to bring comfort to the 16th Street Baptist Church. Five years later, he was gunned down in Memphis by a shooter whose motivation then was the same as the Dollar General shooter’s now: hatred. We’ve not traveled far from Birmingham or Memphis when the White shooter in the Jacksonville (FL) Dollar General store leaves behind a racist manifesto in which he hoped for a race war and the death of Black Americans.
We live in one of the most divisive times in American history. Sudden polarization, the climate crisis, and social movements that continue to reveal race and gender inequalities have somehow pushed us away from the cultural unity we need. We hear our division in the roar of angry crowds and the whisper of quiet hostilities.
Worse, partisan politics continue to deepen our divide. Our communities have been torn apart less by bombs than by politicians fostering hostility and deception. We hear “leaders” who justify hatred, politicians who use language that both communicates and disguises their intent; candidates who say they care about racial justice but simultaneously create ways to exclude Black voters; candidates who claim they value and understand the American family while bullying the adolescent whose sexual identity is uncertain.
And it’s not just the politicians who trade in such hatred. We see it in the everyday actions (or inactions) of Americans, especially those of us who are complicit. When we see other human beings as less deserving of healthcare and less worthy of compassion; when we justify the brokenness of our communities by blaming those least like ourselves; when the killings of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor (and countless more) prompt us to sigh but not to act — at such moments, we are creating the context that nurtures viciousness and brutality. We are planting the seeds that grow into Four Dead Girls.
In 1993 I’d been invited by a pastor troubled by his congregation’s struggle to accept people with AIDS. He thought I might help, and a gifted church member — the remarkable Carolyn McKinstry, a friend for life — offered to help. Together, we were committed to fighting mean bias and discrimination.
Midway through my remarks that Sunday morning, I confessed: “I do not believe that some of us are less than human for the color of our skin or for the virus in our veins, because I believe we are all God’s children.”
Therefore, when justice rolls down like a river, it will wash not only the back of the slave who did not ask for his beating but also for the fevered brow of the patient who did not ask for his virus. …[W]hen the healing streams flow through our souls, we will have not judgment but compassion on all those who suffer.
If you and I both kneel in prayer together, calling one God our Father, how can we not rise and walk together?…We cannot call God our Father and deny that we are brothers and sisters. Black or White, HIV-positive or HIV-negative, when we begin our prayers ‘Our Father who art in heaven…,’ we will end those prayers in the arms of brothers and sisters — else it is not a prayer we offer; it is a lie. This I believe.”
Thirty years before the rise of MAGA and Trump I added, “When we hear the voices of hatred and anger which would divide us by race and creed, by color and gender; when cruelty and stigma reduce our brothers and sisters to something less than human — courage must take the place of cowardice. We will speak out….”
Cronkite may have been right when he called the Birmingham bombing an awakening. Watching mourners carry four small white coffins took from White Americans the ability to simply look away. It was no longer just “their” problem; it had become ours. Even today, we remember. Or do we?
But the awakening, if we’ve had one, has not yet flowered into a new crusade for decency, justice, kindness, and civility in our communities, our States, or our nation. Bull Connor has been replaced by someone who speaks more smoothly but no less dangerously, and Dr. King’s search for his “Beloved Community” has not yet realized its goal.
“Denise and Addie were putting on their choir robes,” I remembered with the Birmingham congregation. “They never finished. Carole and Cynthia were getting ready to usher; the service was never held.” They were preparing for a Sunday School lesson they never shared.
Just as an historic note, the title of that morning’s Sunday School lesson was “The Love that Forgives.”