BIRMINGHAM, Ala. — A week of events featuring former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder will mark the 50th anniversary of a painful chapter in this city’s history.
Four girls, ages 11-14, were killed when a bomb planted by the Ku Klux Klan exploded just outside the 16th Street Baptist Church on Sept. 15, 1963. The church bombing was a pivotal moment in the struggle for civil rights.
Birmingham Mayor William Bell had a relative and a schoolmate who died in the bombing. He wants people to come to the city and remember the sacrifices made there. Tourists will see a very different city, he said, one where the mayor, police chief and fire chief are African-Americans.
In the early 1960s, public safety commissioner Eugene”Bull” Connor fought all efforts to desegregate the city. In his inaugural address in January 1963, Alabama Gov. George Wallace pledged to maintain segregation forever.
Birmingham business owners stubbornly resisted repeated attempts to desegregate, causing local leaders such as the Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth to call in the heads of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, one of the most prominent civil rights organizations of the time.
Fresh off the successful March on Washington, the SCLC’s Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., Andrew Young and Rev. Ralph Abernathy worked with local leaders to organize and train protesters. King called Birmingham the most segregated city in America.
When Addie Mae Collins, Denise McNair, Carole Robertson and Cynthia Wesley were killed in the church bombing, the whole world took notice.
The Rev. Oliver Clark, a young, white pastor in Birmingham, changed his Sunday evening sermon to address the bombing.
None of us would have planted the bomb, he told parishioners, but our silence created an environment where Ku Klux Klan members thought it was OK to do so. He recalled seeing a white mother and her son passing a black mother and her child in a store. The white child turned to his mother and said,”We’re supposed to hate them, right Mommy?”
Clark, now 77, is an associate pastor at Canterbury United Methodist Church in Mountainbrook, a wealthy suburb of Birmingham. The church recently hosted a screening of Spike Lee’s documentary”Four Little Girls.” Lisa McNair, the sister of Denise McNair, who would have been 62 this year, spoke after the film.
“I hope you’ve gained something by remembering,” Clark told the diverse crowd of about 100 people.”We don’t want to forget.”
Remembering the church bombing
A number of events will be held in Birmingham to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing.
Sept. 11: More than 5,000 volunteers are expected to take part in a day of service. Volunteers will clean up city parks, libraries and communities from 9 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. At 4 p.m., Trinity Broadcasting Network will broadcast live from the park. Grammy-winning gospel singers CeCe Winans and Donnie McClurkin will perform.
Sept. 14: Unveiling of a bronze memorial to the girls who died in the church bombing. 4 p.m. Kelly Ingram Park across from 16th Street Baptist Church and the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute.
Sept. 15: U.S. Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. and former Secretary of State (and Birmingham native) Condoleezza Rice will speak at 12:30 p.m. at Alys Stephens Performing Arts Center on the campus of the University of Alabama at Birmingham. At 2 p.m., arts organizations will present a staged reading of Christina M. Ham’s play” Four Little Girls: Birmingham 1963.” Jemison Concert Hall, 1200 10th Ave. South. The event is free and open to the public. Ticket availability is limited. Information: (205) 975-2787.