Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Four Birmingham Girls

Scripture for the 17th Sunday after Pentecost includes Jeremiah 4:11-12, 22-28; I Timothy 1:12-17; Luke 15:1-10

Across the nation this weekend, congregations are holding in precious memory four young girls who lost their lives in the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, by a domestic terrorist, aided by his cell group of Ku Klux Klansmen. It was a crude bomb, many sticks of dynamite with a timing device, stashed under the steps of the church, near the basement.

At the moment of detonation, twenty-six children were walking into the basement assembly room to prepare for worship on the theme, “The Love That Forgives.” Four girls were killed, the other twenty-two were injured. The bomb exploded at 10:22 a.m.

At that moment this morning, our tower bell will be tolled four times. Whatever it is we’re doing at that moment will be interrupted by the friendly familiar sound of church bells around us, meant to remind us of the horrifying, unthinkable destruction that interrupted worship there that morning. The explosion blew a hole in the church’s rear wall, destroyed the back steps, and shattered all but one stained-glass window—one that shows Christ leading a group of children.

In the terms of today’s Gospel, here were four lost lambs, each of them laid on the Good Shepherd’s shoulders to be brought home, but not to their homes and their families in Birmingham, and not rejoicing.

In the terms of Luke’s Gospel, these girls were lost because so many righteous persons felt they needed no repentance. Racial hatred in the white community, aimed at blacks, seeped down from the top: Governor George Wallace, a week before the bombing, told The New York Times that to stop integration, Alabama needed a “few first-class funerals.” He was dead wrong.

The loss of those sweet girls marked a turning point in the United States’ civil rights movement and contributed to support for passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. As insidious as was the evil that destroyed these girls, even more incisive was the resulting awareness that, to quote Dr. King, “History will have to record that the greatest tragedy of this period of social transition was not the strident clamor of the bad people, but the appalling silence of the good people.” Slowly but dramatically, the righteous who needed no repentance discovered that they did.

In Cynthia Levinson’s book about the Birmingham Children’s March, she tells the story of Charles Morgan, Jr. “The day after the church bombing, (this white lawyer) gave a talk to a club for young white Birmingham businessmen. He told them, ‘The death of those four little girls was your fault as it was the guy who made the bomb… Most of all, blame all who looked the other way. Every person in this community who has in any way contributed to the popularity of hatred is at least as guilty, or more so, than the demented fool who threw that bomb. We are a mass of intolerance and bigotry.’ Five weeks later, deluged by death threats after these remarks, Morgan and his family left Birmingham for good.”

It was no accident that the Klan targeted 16th Street Baptist Church. It had been a rallying point for civil rights activities through the spring of 1963, and was where the students who were arrested during that year’s Children’s Crusade were trained. The church was used as a meeting place for civil rights leaders including Martin Luther King, Ralph Abernathy, and Fred Shuttlesworth.

Tensions escalated when the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and the Congress on Racial Equality became involved in a campaign in Birmingham to register African Americans to vote. And during that spring, civil rights demonstrations succeeded in persuading city business leaders to integrate public facilities in the city. The Klan saw but refused to read the handwriting on the wall.

But the tenacious grasp of Jim Crow showed itself in the travesty of Alabama’s legal system that ensued. A witness identified the fellow who placed the bomb at the church, but the suspect was charged with possessing a box of 122 sticks of dynamite without a permit, and received a hundred-dollar fine and a six month jail sentence. Other suspects were named, but not prosecuted. No federal charges were filed.

The case was reopened in 1971, when a new Attorney General of Alabama requested the FBI files on the case and discovered that the agency had accumulated evidence against the named suspects that had not been revealed to the state prosecutors by order of J. Edgar Hoover.

The seemingly forgotten case was finally brought to court in 1977, when the chief suspect was sentenced to life imprisonment; he died in prison in 1985.

It wasn’t until May of 2000 that attention returned to three additional Klansmen. One was tried, convicted, and sentenced to life in prison. A second died without being charged. The third had his trial delayed two year because he was found to be mentally incompetent, was convicted and sentenced to life in prison where he died in 2004.

At the funeral for three of the girls (one family chose to have a separate service), Dr. King spoke about life being “as hard as crucible steel.” Eight thousand mourners attended, including eight hundred clergy of all races. No officials from the City of Birmingham came.

In the arts, Spike Lee directed the 1997 documentary “4 Little Girls”. Langston Hughes wrote the poem “Birmingham Sunday”. Novelist Sena Jeter Naslund wrote “Four Spirits”, later adapted as a play.

The people of Wales raised money to rebuild the 16th Street Church, and gave a stained glass window depicting a black man, arms outstretched, reminiscent of the crucified Jesus.

And on May 24 of this year, President Obama signed a bill awarding the Congressional Gold Medal to Addie Mae Collins, Denise McNair, Carole Robertson, and Cynthia Wesley. The medal was given to the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute to display and lend to other museums.

A number of musicians have told the girls’ story in song: Bruce Springsteen, Phil Ochs, Kate Campbell, John Coltrane, Nina Simone. Perhaps the most famous is Richard Farina’s “Birmingham Sunday”, sung by his sister in law, Joan Baez. In just a few moments we’ll hear this song, sung by Celia Twomey.

I think we’ll want to keep some silence after that song. Then I’ve prepared a responsive reflection to serve as our Prayers of the People today. It’s printed on a half sheet insert (see below). It’s constructed of quotations from the writings of Martin Luther King, and has some brief silences built into it.

(Much of the content above comes from the Wikipedia entry for “Four Birmingham Girls”.)

The Prayers of the People today take the form of a responsive reflection. Quotations from the writings of The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. are woven into the lines of both leader and people. Where you see three sets of dashes, these mark opportunities to pause and to listen to what has just been said.

Leader: Holy God, we hold in our memory four little girls whose violent deaths fifty years
ago showed us that human progress is neither automatic nor inevitable…

People: every step toward the goal of justice requires sacrifice, suffering, and

Leader: Their deaths in the Sunday School of Birmingham’s 16th Street
Baptist Church convinced us that he who passively accepts evil is as much involved
in it as he who helps to perpetrate it.

People: He who accepts evil without protesting against it is really cooperating with it.

Leader: Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.

People: In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence
of our friends.
--- --- ---

Leader: Cynthia Wesley, Carole Robertson, Addie Mae Collins, and Denise McNair serve
us as Sunday school teachers today. One of their lessons is that we must develop
and maintain the capacity to forgive. He who is devoid of the power to forgive
is devoid of the power to love.

People: There is some good in the worst of us and some evil in the best of us. When we
discover this, we are less prone to hate our enemies.

Leader: Darkness cannot drive out darkness;

People: only light can do that.

Leader: Hate cannot drive out hate;

People: only love can do that.

Leader: I have decided to stick with love.

People: Hate is too great a burden to bear.
--- --- ---

Leader: Compassionate God, we hold these four little girls in memory, and we grieve.
We must accept finite disappointment…

People: but never lose infinite hope.

Leader: Every man must decide whether he will walk in the light of creative altruism
or in the darkness of destructive selfishness.

People: We must learn to live together as brothers and sisters or perish together
as fools.

Leader: I refuse to accept the view that mankind is so tragically bound to the starless
midnight of racism and war that the bright daybreak of peace and brother-
hood can never become a reality…

People: I believe that unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word.

--- --- ---
Dr. King’s quotations appear on and were arranged in this format by
The Rev. Peter Elvin for the Four Girls Jubilee observance.