16th Street Baptist Tells the Story

23 Apr


One of the "four spirits" releases doves into air across intersection from 16th Street Baptist.

One of the “four spirits” releases doves into air across intersection from 16th Street Baptist.

16th Street Baptist Church stands not far from what folks in Birmingham call Malfunction Junction, the intersection of Interstates 65 and 20/59. Yet much of the land around the church is open space – well-maintained, but open, and with spring much farther along down here than up north, lushly green. The surroundings seem tranquil compared to the interstate of the present – and the turbulence of the past.

But if the church itself isn’t enough to reinforce the importance of what transpired here, ext door stands the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute. In front of the institute, catty corner to the church, is Kelley Ingram Park, site of some of the nation’s most important civil rights protests in the 1960s. In the park are metal sculptures depicting events such as a leashed police dog lunging at a protestor or two children being hosed down by a water cannon. A woman sleeps on a bench, another man hits me up for a fe3w dollars. As I start to take a photo of the children being hosed down, one of the shabbily dressed ole men on the bench holler at me and I brace to be hit up again – but he only wants to point out a better angle for my picture, one from behind the water cannon, providing the policeman’s view of the children he was gunning down.

Then, heading back toward the church, I see 16th Street Baptist close to the way the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. would see it, if only statues had the gift of sight. And, just beyond that statue, the sculpture of the four little girls killed in the bombing of 16th Street Baptist Church. Addie Mae Collins, Denise McNair, Carole Robertson and Cynthia Wesley. One girl releases doves into the air while another kneels behind, tying the bow on her friend’s dress – at the time the bomb went off, the girls were in the basement, preparing to be in the service.

Lost in thought, I crossed the intersection diagonally, enter one of the street level doors. It’s a Thursday, not Sunday, but 16th Street Baptist is humming – tours come through here constantly in the mornings and into the afternoon. Some of them are scheduled, some not. They strive to accommodate all.

Church administrator Washington on steps of 16th Street Baptist.

Church administrator Washington on steps of 16th Street Baptist.

Back in January, a group of students from my own college came down to help Habitat for Humanity in Tuscaloosa rebuild my hometown after its April 27, 2011 tornado that killed 54 residents. The Sunday educational component was a visit to the Institute, but a 16th Street Baptist member had suggested it would be OK to poke our heads into the sanctuary if it were still open after we were done at BCRI. Since the door to the sanctuary was open, I had led our group into the back so they could see the historic stained glass windows – including the one in which Jesus’s face, and only his face, was blown out by the bomb.

Even though the doors were open, the alarm had been set – so a surprised church member, Tara Walton, came up the stairs. We apologized and started to head out the door when she’d said, “Well, as long as you’re here, you’d may as well have the tour.” She stopped short of showing the video, but the shrine downstairs – the photos of the girls and the rubble, the clock that stopped at the time of the blast – was enough to make the point. Later my students had marveled at the hospitality and generosity of our impromptu guide – but today, sitting down in the basement with church administrator Lamarese Washington, I hear a convincing rationale for why members, even so many years later, feel called to tell the story.

“It’s important to bring them in because of the history of the church and it’s our responsibility as a church to keep the doors open every day,” said Washington, who administrates a team of 10 guides in the church’s tour ministry. Many of the tours are scheduled, but many more are impromptu walk-ins who wander over from the Civil Rights Institute. “We could lock the doors every day, but we get an average of 75 to 80 thousand visitors a year because of the history of the church, so it’s our obligation to keep open.”

The four girls projected on wall of their church, part of video visitors see.

The four girls projected on wall of their church, part of video visitors see.

Why is it important for people to see the church?

“The people determine why it’s important to go,” he said, prompting me to laugh at the intelligent spin he puts on the question. “They go for the same reason they need to go to Washington D.C., the same reason they decide important to know the history of the civil rights movement.

“And we decide that we as church decided to keep important because it’s our responsibility.”

What does he suspect is going on in the visitors’ psyches as they take in both the tragedy and inspiration of the 16th Street Baptist story?

“Everything.” He paused as if that was it, but then elaborates. “Everything from the visible emotional response when they walk in and think of water hoses and dogs and agony of all that and realizing that they are here at that spot. From there a young visitor, someone 8 or 10 years old, might ask, ‘Why did those people do that?’

“You never get that question from adult. Been doing this five years and been part of church for 20, and I don’t recall an older person asking why. I think you know why and I know why, but that’s hard to answer. … I ask same question about the Jewish community attack two or three days ago. I ask, ‘Why?’”

The "Wales Window" donated by people from Wales after bombing.

The “Wales Window” donated by people from Wales after bombing.

So it is that what happened here 51 years ago is still inextricably woven to the present. Sometimes it seems as if much of the population has learned nothing at all – or at least taken nothing to heart. Just today the Atlantic Monthly has published an article about how my hometown school system had in a little more than 40 years gone from segregation to integration to resegregation. Making me feel both better and worse, the reporter noted that the Midwest and Northeast were still even more segregated than my hometown. Five days from now, the U.S. Supreme Court will uphold a law prohibiting the University of Michigan from using affirmative action as a criterion in admitting students.

Thus it seems perfectly logical when Washington notes that the nation as a whole hasn’t apologized for it’s racist past – and that the people who don’t feel that sorry aren’t going to come to 16th Street Baptist. But of course the church reaches a lot of school children from across the political spectrum – and meanwhile provides the chance for older people who do remember those times to bear witness. He notes that the older white visitors do the crying.

“I’ve seen people physically crying because of empathy they are feeling — and it’s always a white person who has memory of 1963. There are a whole lot of people crying, and a lot of verbal apologies.”

Black visitors from the same generation have, of course, carried this burden for so much longer, and so much more intimately.

“They lived with it, they understand, they know.”

Because of the importance of having lived through it, the guides are all 65 or older; some of them were members when the bomb went off on Sept. 15, 1963. Washington himself grew up in Gainesville, Florida; before settling here, he had traveled the world in the military, where he’d worked his way up from enlisted private to colonel. He remembered where he was when he heard about the bomb at 16th Street Baptist – and how his Southern white roommate never brought up the topic with him after the announcement. “Of course, in the military, the philosophy was that we weren’t black and white, we were green.”

We talk a bit about the funky stages of racial dialogue, how in a racist world one often has to sell the notion of the ways we are the same before we can have that healthy dialogue about the ways we are not.

We also reminisce about U.S. District Judge Frank Johnson, who handed down landmark civil rights rulings from the 1950s onward in a state where lawmakers tended to “punt” politically unpopular decisions to the federal government. I once was lucky enough to interview Judge Johnson and asked him how it felt to be viewed as a civil rights hero. The judge simply stared, then said firmly, “A man isn’t a hero for fulfilling his oath.”

Of course, that’s what the tour guides of 16th Street Baptist are doing – fulfilling an oath. Or at least a sense of obligation to something larger than themselves – to the Christian commitment to keeping a church’s doors open, or, more likely, to telling story of the sacrifice four unsuspecting little girls made on a Sunday morning back in troubled 1963. The sun is shining as Washington and I walk outside, but as our time together reminds me, there is so much more work to be done. The volunteers of 16th Street Baptist are doing their share.

washington picture

Washington with basement rendering of four spirits in heaven.

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