It was just barely past 10:20 a.m. on Sunday morning when the children made their way downstairs. They had just finished listening to the pastor’s sermon: “The Love That Forgives.” Perhaps their minds dwelt on the incredible calling that the pastor’s sermon placed on the lives of those who followed after Jesus–love your enemies so much that you can’t help but forgive them? Sure, maybe that stuff worked for Jesus but it would be so hard for a black person in Birmingham, Alabama, in 1963. This was the city where dogs and hoses had been turned on peaceful demonstrators. This was the city often described as the “most segregated” city in all of the nation. This was the city of “Bull” Connor who, in response to Brown v. Board of Education had said, “You’re going to have bloodshed, and it’s on them [the Supreme Court], not us.” They were supposed to learn to love and forgive these people?
As they gathered in the basement of 16th Street Baptist Church their minds might have only been concerned with what fun the teacher might have in mind for them. Perhaps they were focused on what everybody else was wearing and doing. We know that one little girl had asked another older girl to help tie her belt–it must have been coming undone. In this sanctuary–this haven from the hate and destruction of the world–where they tried to worship and follow after a crucified and abuse Lord, they were not as scared as they were used to being. For a brief moment, perhaps, they felt some respite and comfort in the basement of this place. Then it happened.
A bomb–nineteen sticks of dynamite–went off.
The cement and glass of the basement wall became a horrible mess of shrapnel and death. One poor girl was so thoroughly mutilated by the blast that she was unrecognizable to all but her father who knew her by the ring she wore. One child’s eyes were lacerated and filled with glass. How does one adequately describe a singular blast of indiscriminate hatred that murders children in a church basement in cold blood? Regardless, it is a powerful testament of the conversion of the bombers to the wide way that leads unto destruction.
As people flocked to the site of the bombing, they soon found out that four children had been killed and over twenty other people had been injured physically. The amount of emotional, mental, and spiritual wounds on that day cannot–and perhaps should not–be quantified. That was a day when hatred and darkness struck out and caused inestimable damage. As the gathering crowd looked up, only one stained glass window had not been blown out in the blast: an image of Jesus gathering the little children unto himself. The face and head of Jesus had been blown off by the blast but the remainder of the image stood as an eerie statement about where Jesus was in the blast–about who else the bombers were bombing.
This event–the martyrdom of four little girls (Denise McNair, Cynthia Wesley, Carole Robertson, and Addie Mae Collins)–would demonstrate the brutality and evil of the kind of people who would be willing to bomb a church and children because of their own fear and ignorance. The four men who were eventually implicated in the plot (three of whom were found guilty, one died before being charged) remain nameless here because it is best that the world forget their stories entirely. They thought they were doing it to protect themselves and their families from integration of black citizens with white citizens. All they did was further show the world what it was that they truly believed in: a supposed gospel of peace and happiness through domination, destruction, and willful power.
As one of the men was led away after being found guilty, he was asked if he had anything to say. He retorted: “I guess the good Lord will settle it on judgment day.” Of this, I have no doubt but, perhaps it is most fitting to remember the words of Martin Luther King, Jr. in response to this atrocity:
And so my friends, they did not die in vain. God still has a way of wringing good out of evil. And history has proven over and over again that unmerited suffering is redemptive. The innocent blood of these little girls may well serve as a redemptive force that will bring new light to this dark city….And so I stand here to say this afternoon to all assembled here, that in spite of the darkness of this hour, we must not despair. We must not become bitter, nor must we harbor the desire to retaliate with violence. No, we must not lose faith in our white brothers. Somehow we must believe that the most misguided among them can learn to respect the dignity and the worth of all human personality.
This was the “Love that Forgives.” This was, truly, the seed of redemption that brought about integration and healing. This was the spirit of conversion that leads unto God.
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