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Monday, September 16, 2013

When Churches are Bombed

Denise McNair. Cynthia Wesley. Addie Mae Collins. Carole Robertson. 

Less than three weeks after King's 'I Have a Dream' speech, 4 little girls were murdered while attending Sunday school at their church.

These children assumed they were safe as they learned to love and follow the Prince of Peace. They assumed that a house of worship was sacred ground. They assumed Christ's ministry of love would yield a world unified by His grace. They were mistaken.

The bombing at 16th Street Baptist Church took place the Sunday after the first racial integration of classrooms had occurred in Birmingham. In addition to the four girls killed, dozens of others were badly injured. In the aftermath, two other young black boys were killed, one of whom was shot by a white teenager--an eagle scout. Both before and after the bombing, Birmingham was a racially divided town. On which side did white Christians stand?

The shattered face of white Jesus in
the bombed stain glass window
"The deaths…in a sense are on the hands of each of us," noted a Milwaukee editorial the day after the bombing. "Who threw that bomb?" asked a Birmingham lawyer, "The answer should be, we all did it." But for white folks, "The overwhelming reaction was one of distancing and denial."

But as with so many recent incidents, the perpetrators were written off as lunatics, rather than as the products of a racialized society for which we are all responsible. The Christians that Jesus had charged with caring for the 'least of these' had failed to protect and defend these Sunday school children from hatred and violence. They had not taken seriously the cries for justice from their black sisters and brothers.

The scripture scheduled
for that Sunday: Luke 23:34
Peniel Joseph notes that "the murder of four black girls in Birmingham reflected the value the larger society placed on black lives." This undervaluing continues today. Joseph goes on to assert that "the circumstances that lead to the injury and killing of black children have changed, but the outcomes remain debilitating and, in certain instances, deadly" and "racism's pernicious effects on the hopes and dreams of African-American children remain." What cries for justice do we dismiss and invalidate today?

Black children continue to be "viewed by myriad institutions in society -- school, courts, police -- as potential predators and prisoners rather than future leaders." White Christians continue to look the other way when it comes to issues like the school-to-prison pipeline, the war on drugs, and stop-and-frisk. They continue to be perplexed by black folks' reactions to incidents like the murders of Trayvon Martin and Oscar Grant.

Does your church remember 4 little girls? Are their names and stories mentioned from the pulpit? Chances are, the answer depends on the race of your church (and of your pastor).

Was the recent shooting at Oak Creek Temple addressed in your church? Did your community actively speak out or take action against it? How do we continue to downplay the laments of the oppressed today?


  1. The damage to our witness: "I think that in the black community, the 16th Street bombing will always remain a testament of not to fully trust white folks," Drew says. "Our hearts became reserved. We had a new fear of white violence. Because if you will stoop that low, to kill children in church, then is there anything else that you couldn't do?"

  2. Just as in today's racialized cases, the Birmingham bombing was not aggressively prosecuted by white authorities: "By 1965, we had serious suspects—namely, Robert E. Chambliss, Bobby Frank Cherry, Herman Frank Cash, and Thomas E. Blanton, Jr." But it wasn't until 1977 that any sort of charges were brought in the case:

    "Herman Cash died in 1994 without having been charged. Bobby Frank Cherry, also a former Klansman, was indicted in 2001 along with Blanton. Judge James Garrett of Jefferson County Circuit Court ruled "that Mr. Cherry's trial would be delayed indefinitely because a court-ordered psychiatric evaluation concluded that he was mentally incompetent.” He was later convicted in 2002, sentenced to life in prison, and died in 2004.

    One of the bombers, Robert Chambliss, was charged with possession of dynamite. He served a six-month sentence. The others weren’t prosecuted for decades. Fourteen years after the bombing, Chambliss was tried again and found guilty in connection with the bombing. He died in 1985. Thomas Blanton wasn’t tried until 2001, and is still serving a life sentence; Bobby Frank Cherry was convicted in 2002, and died two years later—that means it took nearly 40 years for most of the bombers to be brought to justice. The other bomber, Herman Cash, had died in 1994 and never faced charges."


  3. As it does after similar events today, the mainstream (read: white) media focused more on the potential for violent black backlash to the Birmingham bombing, than on those that committed it--or the even environment of racial oppression surrounding it.


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By Their Strange Fruit by Katelin H is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.
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