My eyes puddled with tears and they began to trickle down my face, faster than I could wipe them away. Soon, they became a solid stream that I could not hide from my children, who saw me crying and came to comfort me. They sat on each side of me on the sofa, put their arms around me, and asked, “Why are you crying, daddy? What’s wrong? What’s the matter?”
I was crying because I was watching the live television coverage of the aftermath of the bombing of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church. Firefighters and emergency workers were going through the rubble. Then, it was announced that four little girls, about the same age of my own children, had been killed in the blast.
When I told my children that a church had been blown up and four little girls had been killed, they immediately asked, “Why, daddy? Why?” I struggled to answer that question. Finally, I told them there were some mean people in the world who hated black people, and they were the people who had bombed the church.
I have continued to ask why on a deeper level. I believe several factors brought about the bombing. The Jim Crow laws contributed to the hatred that led to the bombing. Those laws separated us, whites from blacks. They required separation in schools, restaurants, movies, waiting rooms, on public transportation, in hospitals, and even water fountains and restrooms. Shamefully, churches segregated themselves, by their own choices. The outcome of all the separation was most white people did not know very many black people, and vice versa. There were no interracial friendships, conversations, or understanding.
Into this gap in knowledge and understanding, white supremacists, and other hate groups joined in spreading misinformation and vicious lies. They said black people were dumb, lazy, shiftless, and immoral. The Klan spread the lie that black men lusted for white women, and that they were the noble protectors of their honor. The lying and malicious talk was multiplied many times over. Many ignorant white people believed the lies, and not liking or even hating black people became easy.
In those days, violence was rampant in Birmingham. The demonstrators were marching, pushing the segregationist’s envelope, and defying the law. The police and fire department were pushing back, trying to stop them, using billet clubs, vicious dogs, water cannons, and paddy wagons.
The Sixteenth Street Baptist Church became a prime target for the Ku Klux Klan. It was a meeting place for Civil Rights Movement leaders such as Martin Luther King, Fred Shuttlesworth, and Ralph Abernathy. It was where students trained for the Children’s Crusade and many other protests and marches. It was the general headquarters and a haven for Birmingham Civil Rights marchers and protesters. All of these factors, and then some, came to a head with the bombing of the church.
President Franklin Delano Roosevelt referred to the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, when he said, “This is a day that will live in infamy.” That day now has company. September 15, 1963, when the church was bombed and four little girls were killed is another day when it can be said, “This is a day that will live in infamy.”
Dr. Robert Wilkerson is a minister, writer, and founder of People for the Christian Way, an organization whose mission is to encourage all people to practice Christian principles in business, politics, and every area of life. firstname.lastname@example.org, http://www.peopleforthechristianway.com