Justice for 16th Street Baptist Church by Trichia Bravi

Until this week, I thought I had a good understanding of the Civil Rights Movement. I knew of the intimidation tactics used by the Ku Klux Klan, the beatings of nonviolent protesters, and the bombings of various activists’ houses and churches. However, I was unaware of one of the most troubling KKK attacks: the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama.

Two years after the initial wave of Freedom Rides in May of 1961, and the violence ensuing in Birmingham, the Civil Rights Movement was still in full swing, with the focal point then on city-wide desegregation integration of schools rather than interstate travel. The most prominent black church in Birmingham, the 16th Street Baptist Church, became the center for civil rights activists and community mass meetings, thus making it a target for violent retaliation in 1963.

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Ku Klux Klan robe donated to Birmingham Civil Rights Institute 

On September 15, 1963, just eleven days after the integration of schools in Birmingham, four Klansmen ignited multiple sticks of dynamite under the steps of the church. At 10:22 that morning, people heard and felt the explosion many blocks away. Glass shattered, walls crumbled, and a place of worship was damaged..

Sunday School was in session and the congregation had begun to gather. The explosion injured over twenty people and killed four young girls. They were Addie Mae Collins, Cynthia Wesley, Denise McNair, and Carole Robertson.

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Pictured from left to right: Addie Mae Collins (14), Carole Robertson (14), Denise McNair (11), Cynthia Wesley (14)

The oldest was fourteen years old. Their killers were aKKK splinter group called the Cahaba Boys. Despite this horrible crime, not one of their perpetrators—Robert Chambliss, Herman Cash, Thomas Blanton or Bobby Cherry—were convicted until 1977, 14 years later. Only one of them, Robert  man (Chambliss) was found guilty of murder.

Two of the other men listed, Blanton and Cherry, were convicted of murder in 2001 and 2002, respectively. Cash passed away in 1994 at the age of 75 before the reopening of the case which resulted in Blanton’s and Cherry’s convictions.

Many have been critical of the delayed justice. While I do believe everyone is entitled to due process and a fair trial, I also believe in proper justice for victims. Four girls lost their lives. While three of the four men  responsible for this crime were convicted of murder,  justice was not served. A jury convicted Chambliss at the age of 73. Blanton was convicted when he was 70 and Cherry when he was nearly 72. Cash lived until he was 75 without a murder conviction. They lived full lives, which is more than I can say about their victims. That is not justice, and not fair.

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Newspapers from around the country after the bombing on September 15, 1963

The most justice that resulted from this horrific tragedy was passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and national realization of the dire consequences of southern discrimination. I find it distressing, however, that it took the death of four children for the nation to take serious action.

“this is not a method for cowards. . . .” by Jamaal Jones

The year is 1956 and Martin Luther King Jr. had just experienced a bomb exploding in his home. Our journey through the Civil Rights Movement had begun in Atlanta, Georgia. The birthplace of a leader and the final resting place of a man who shaped a nation.IMG_2842 The Martin Luther King Jr. Historic Site had a mix sensation of hope and worry. Hope for a country that is working to fix the inequalities that plagued the nation for more than a century, but worry that the a century after the end of the civil war, such a problem still existed. It took loss of life, blood shed, and many many years of persecution for the civil rights movement to take hold and really shake the very core of the American south. Dr. King’s commitment to non-violent civil disobedience shocked the nation, as many blacks across the south were losing their lives.

As we entered the King Site in Atlanta, a statue rose high above us of Mohandas Gandhi, King’s guide for the non-violent movement. The importance of this figure was very clear and as we walked through the center, his importance became more and more clear. Dr. King’s respIMG_2797onse to his home being bombed in 1956 was not to retaliate with force but rather with marches and demonstrations legally recognized by the government and protected by the first amendment. Not long after the marches and protests began, the black community of the South was ready to see government action to protect their rights to vote, their right to assemble peacefully, and a desegregate south. However, the government officials of the south were not ready to see these rights enforced. Martin Luther King became the leader and a symbol of the Civil Rights Movement. Over a 12 year period Martin Luther King accomplished more for the rights of black southerners than had been accomplished over the century since the end of slavery and the civil war. The black South would have their voice heard through Martin Luther King and that voice was crying out for freedom, equality and justice for all.

In early April 1968IMG_2821 the civil rights movement lost their symbol when Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee. As we entered the Ebenezer Baptist Church across the street from the MLK Historic Site, Martin Luther King’s words were being played across the intercom,

 

“Yes, if you want to, say that I was a drum major. Say that I was a drum major for justice. Say that I was a drum major for peace. I was a drum major for righteousness. And all of the other shallow things will not matter.”1

– Martin Luther King Jr.

These were the words played at his own funeral. I had seen the video inside the historic site showing Martin Luther King’s funeral and I immediately recognized the church. The Ebenezer Baptist Church, located a short walk from King’s birthplace, was King’s place of worship, and had served as the King family’s place of worship for generations. IMG_2829This church was also the location of the funeral for Martin Luther King Jr. and the final resting place for the great leader. Experiencing his own Eulogy in King’s place of worship was incredibly moving and is something I will always remember. In that instance I was really able to feel what he meant to the civil rights movement. He wasn’t just a leader but a source of religious comfort, a source of constant understanding and so clearly an inspiration to black south. While people like Rosa Parks, Rev. Shuttlesworth, John Lewis and many others helped fuel a fire, Martin Luther King Jr.’s words and non-violent actions helped spark the fire that blazed through the South dismantling segregation, voter registration restrictions and many other civil injustices.

 

Properly Honoring the Legacy of Dr. King by Maggie Gray

Before our class left campus, Professor DeLaney showed us an image of Dr. King’s tomb and said that its extravagance stands in contrast to his ideals. As I entered the King Center in Atlanta, this discrepancy was in the forefront of my mind. The first stop, the Visitor Center, did not stand out to me as overtly in conflict with the ideals of Dr. King. It was an informative space, focusing on the different parts of the Civil Rights movement in which King was involved. The museum space is an effective means of educating visitors about King and his actions toward racial equality, while not placing too much focus on him as an individual. I suspect that he would prefer this type of museum to one that told his story without considering the larger context. When we left the Visitor Center, I was very curious to see the tomb myself and come to my own conclusion about its embodiment of Dr. King’s philosophies.

 

After seeing both the tomb and his birth home, I have to agree with Professor DeLaney. The tomb itself is very large and imposing, and underneath Dr. King’s name there is a quote from one of his speeches.IMG_7408 To my understanding of King, he would not have wanted a quote of his own on his tomb. A quote from Gandhi, or even from the Bible, may have been more true to King’s spirit and the causes he dedicated his life to. The pool that surrounds King’s tomb appeared rather tasteless to me. The bottom of it was painted blue, which reminded me more of a fountain where children play, than a final resting place of a well-respected figure of American history. Something much simpler would have done a far superior job honoring King’s legacy. I also think that it was wrong to move King from his original resting place at his alma mater, Morehouse College, to this grandiose exhibit. If he wished to be interred at Morehouse College, he should have remained there. It is disappointing that the King family was so consumed with a need for extravagance that they failed to honor his ideals. The transformation of Martin Luther King’s birth home into a museum also concerned me. While it was fascinatingIMG_7416 to see the house where he was born, I think that Dr. King would be opposed to its existence as a National Park Site. I would expect him to care more about people understanding his work, and seeing its effects, rather than seeing the structure in which he was born.

These sites cheapen the legacy left behind by Dr. King, and they are not in line with his humble nature. This became very apparent to me after sitting in Ebenezer Baptist Church. In the church, audio of Dr. King’s last sermon played. In this sermon he speculated about his death and explicitly said he wanted to be remembered as a “drum major” of justice, peace and righteousness, not as someone who won the Nobel Peace Prize and countless other awards. The Visitor Center Museum was successful in preserving this memory, but the tomb and the birth home seemed to capitalize more on his fame than his noteworthy actions. I was slightly disappointed by the King Center as a whole, because I do not think that it completely respected who Martin Luther King, Jr. really was: a man who died while in Memphis for a sanitation workers march, not a man who sought recognition, fame and awards.

The Sixteenth Street Baptist Church and the Civil Rights Movement by Riley Ries

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Praying Ministers

Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth and Praying Ministers – Kelly Ingram Park

The Sixteenth Street Baptist Church was the most prominent organization in the Birmingham, Alabama civil rights movement. Lead by Reverend Fred Shuttlesworth, members of the congregation assisted the Freedom Riders numerous times, whether hosting them for dinner, or providing lodging for the night, or braving the potentially deadly force of a white pro-segregation mob to save Freedom Riders in Anniston after the fire-bombing of the first bus. The Church also played a major role in the protests on the streets of Birmingham and the boycott of its bus system.  Kelly Ingram Park is across the street from the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church. In the first week of May 1963, hundreds of protestors, many of whom were children and high school students, gathered in the streets surrounding the park and advocated for the desegregation of their city. On the first day of their protests hundreds were arrested. On the second day Birmingham police officers and firefighters, under orders from the oppressive Commissioner Eugene “Bull” Connor, assaulted protestors with fire hoses, brutally beat them with batons, and unleashed vicious dogs upon themScreen Shot 2016-04-29 at 9.46.30 PM (as depicted in the statue to the left). However, true to their Gandhian philosophy of non-violence, these protestors never fought back against their attackers, whether they were police officers, Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, or regular white citizens walking along the streets of the city. Even following the bombing of the Church on September 15, 1963, in which four young girls were killed by members of the Klan, the Church and its congregation preached only love and never violence, and continued to follow the lead of Reverend Shuttlesworth and Martin Luther King, Jr.

The Sixteenth Street Baptist Church played a major role in the Civil Rights Movement in the United States, and Fred Shuttlesworth and his congregation arguably had a much greater effect on the desegregation of Birmingham than did Dr. King, SNCC, CORE, or any other individual or group. Had it not been for the heroic actions taken by the members of this congregation, and the bravery and tolerance they exuded in the face of immeasurable pain an suffering, never once faltering from their Gandhian philosophy of non-violence, the desegregation movement in Birmingham and the United States at large would not have proceeded nearly as successfully as it did.