Victims, Villains, and Heroes in Birmingham

57 years ago today, one of the most heinous and cowardly acts in American history happened.At the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama four Klans”men” detonated 19 sticks of dynamite. They killed four young girls and injured another two dozen parishioners.

Slow down and think about this for a minute.

They targeted a church.

They knew there would be children preparing to worship. They did it in the most spineless way possible: leaving a bomb behind. Addie Collins, Cynthia Wesley, and Carole Robertson were all 14 years old. Carol McNair was 11. They should all still be alive today.

Despite pretty much everyone in the area knowing who was responsible for this heinous act, there was only one arrest. That was for an illegal weapons charge, carrying a sentence of 180 days.

The case was reopened in 1977, one of the bombers was convicted of murder. It wasn’t until the year 2000 that two of the others were convicted. (The prosecution was led by Doug Jones. In 2017 Jones defeated Roy Moore to become a Senator from Alabama.)

Some back story:

In 1963, Dr. Martin Luther King Junior wanted to take the civil rights battle to what he considered the most segregated city in America. Birmingham was often called “Bombingham” because there were so many bomb attacks upon African Americans.That summer, he led what would become known as the “children’s marches.” Kids would gather at the church to being their march. They would walk down the steps and be immediately met by Bull Connor’s “men” who unleashed fire hoses and attack dogs on the kids.

I’m guessing you have seen video. It is disgusting. If you haven’t, please do.

In 2012 I travelled to Birmingham to watch my niece play softball. My parents picked me up at the airport, and we went directly to the very humble grave of the four girls to pay our respects. We then journeyed to the park where the attacks on the kids happened. You could still see scars on the trees from the firehoses. We went into the 16th baptist church. They have a small museum honoring the victims. You can see the clock that was hanging from the wall that day, stopped at 10:22…..38 minutes before the service was supposed to begin. You can see the burnt toys from the daycare. You can see the charred rosary that one of the girls was carrying.

There were four African American custodians cleaning the church. I walked over to strike up a conversation, when I notice one was wearing a Vietnam Veteran’s hat.”Hey…you fought in Vietnam?””Yes…and so did these guys.”I shook each of their hands and thanked them. We started chatting. I had an Oregon football shirt on, so they asked questions like “why the ugly uniforms?”

We talked for 10-15 minutes. It was a really enjoyable conversation. I told them I was a history teacher from Oregon.

Then I asked them “Did you all grow up in Birmingham?”

Each of them responded in the affirmative. Doing some quick math in my head…..it dawned on me.”You guys must have all been about 10-15 back in 63 right?”

“Yes”

“Did you march?”One of them: “Yep, I was 14. Got thrown in jail. When I got out came right back.”

“Did you guys get hit with the hoses?”

Each one of them slowly, silently nodded. I could feel my eyes starting to get red and my throat tightening. “Oh my God…I’m so sorry…I’m so sorry….I’m so sorry.”

“Its okay….it was a long time ago.”

“So you guys marched on the streets, got attacked by dogs and fire houses, had your church get bombed…..and then you went to fight for this country in Vietnam?”

“That’s right”

“You guys are heroes. Oh my goodness…you fought for this country inside and out of it….thank you so much.”

“Would it be okay if I asked you some questions on video so I could show my students?”

All four of them almost in unison: “No”

“Please…..you guys are heroes…it would do these kids so much good to hear your story….please.”

A little more firmly, “No.”

“Please…”

“No….we don’t want attention, we just want to be treated right.”

I could tell I had gotten on their nerves and decided not to ask again.

They told me they had to get back to work.I gave them each a few more thank yous and another handshake each, and went on my way.I was thankful to have met them, so very awestruck by the courage they showed…….and extremely sad that they had to.



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