Mar 11, 2014
A Bomb Blast That Still Echoes, a Half-Century Later
Posted on Sep 15, 2013
On this day fifty years ago, a box of dynamite rigged to a timer exploded beneath a stairway at the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Ala., just as a group of African-American children were heading inside to prepare for Sunday morning services. Four girls were killed, more than a score more were wounded, and the South’s long intransigence against equality for African-Americans took yet another deadly turn.
This time, though, the nation, paid attention—well, at least the non-South part of the nation did. The bombing, part of a vicious summer in the civil rights struggle, invigorated the movement. But it would be years before the bombers were brought to justice, and even now, author and journalist Diane McWhorter reports in The New York Times, her native city of Birmingham still has yet to come to grips with its past sins. A half-century later, local commemorations mark the anniversary, but reparations have never been paid to the families of the dead children, nor to those who survived with scars and medical bills and, in the case of Sarah Collins Rudolph, sister to one of the dead girls, a lost eye.
Last week, Congress, in a rare moment of unanimity, bestowed its Congressional Gold Medal, its highest civilian honor, on the four dead girls, Denise McNair, then 11, and Addie Mae Collins (Sarah’s sister), Carole Robertson and Cynthia Wesley, who were 14 when they died. Note that it took a 50th anniversary for Congress to honor those innocent victims. As McNair wrote, Rudolph initially planned to skip the ceremony (she eventually went) to let “the world know, my sister didn’t die for freedom. My sister died because they put a bomb in that church and they murdered her.” Reparations are overdue, she said, a point McWhorter also makes:
This anniversary, McWhorter says, was an opportunity missed.
That bloody summer of 1963—which McWhorter detailed in her 2001 book, “Carry Me Home: Birmingham, Alabama: The Climactic Battle of the Civil Rights Revolution”—was a pivotal experience for the nation, and helped pushed the 1964 Civil Rights Act into law. But it also was only part of a long arc of the troubled history of race relations in the country. At The Atlantic, Andrew Cohen writes of white Birmingham lawyer Charles Morgan Jr., who, a day after the bombing, issued an eloquent plea for white Alabamans to shoulder the blame for the region’s heinous acts of racism. Morgan’s speech included a challenge to his fellow white citizens who kept asking, “Who did this?”
Morgan eventually was hounded out of town by death threats.
To be sure, Birmingham and the nation have changed over the past five decades, and the improvements in racial equality can be measured by laws such as those guaranteeing access to the voting booth—a guarantee that is crumbling away in places—and barring segregation. But with statistics measuring wide racial gaps in employment levels, income, health care access, incarceration rates and local schools, you have to wonder whether the strides taken over the last 50 years are mere baby steps.
—Posted by Scott Martelle.
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