A Bible sits on the pulpit from the Bethel Baptist Church in Collegeville. The pulpit was in use when Fred Shuttlesworth pastored the congregation from 1953-61. The Bible is appropriately opened to Psalms 54-58. Birmingham Civil Rights Institute.
One of the disturbing things about living in the American South is the painful history that is constantly in our faces–monuments to “confederate” leaders, former slave quarters, plantation homes, street names, buildings and spaces where “significant” events took place. Although I am convinced that it is important that we keep the past before us to avoid making those same mistakes, sometimes “American history” can be “too much.” It is surely overwhelming navigating that terrain while nurturing the development of a child.
Klan Robe. On Display at the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute.
My hubby and I, along with many other parents, served as chaperones for a field trip to the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church and the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute in Birmingham, Alabama. The Sixteenth Street church is the site of the September 15, 1963 bombing that took the lives of four girls who were preparing to participate in Sunday worship services: Carole Robertson (age 14), Carol Denise McNair (age 11), Cynthia Wesley (age 14), and Addie Mae Colllins (age 14). Sarah Collins (age 12), the sister of Addie Mae, survived but suffered life-altering injuries as a result of the hate crime, a consequence of mounting racial tensions around desegregation.
My little one knows a lot about American history, but I was worried about this field trip. I didn’t want his being in the physical presence of that place to change him–to make him angry or fearful, or worse, to feel the limitations of his own agency. I recalled his strong sense of injustice at the pronouncement of a “Not Guilty” verdict for George Zimmerman. His concern, then, was not black and white, but child and adult. He wondered aloud how rational adults could allow another adult to “get away with” killing a child. I did not know whether he would be outraged or miserably grieved by hearing the finer details of the deaths of the “little girls”.
“Tragic End for a New Beginning.” Sketch of the Four Little Girls–Carole Robertson, Cynthia Wesley, Addie Mae Collins, and Denise McNair–by Cameron Shepperd. It hangs in the basement of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church.
As we toured, I cautiously waited. Held my breath.
Being in the church where the girls chatted and worshipped was far more intense than reading about it and knowing about it. There were no words for the mixture of grief, anger, horror, powerlessness, “what ifs,” and “whys” that stormed my brain. As I was trying to process my own emotions and keep them “in check” at the same time, I was watching my son. Making sure he was [still] okay.
He listened intently. He studied images. He read captions and discussed them with friends. He danced in the exhibit modeled like a 1950s/60’s jazz club for “coloreds only.” At the end of the day, on the way home, he asked questions. He processed. And I whispered a prayer of gratitude. He knows more, but his sense of self and his place in the world is still intact. I exhaled.
I continue to wait. For the dawning. For the intense sadness he now feels about the [continuing] assault on black skin and black bodies to transform into anger.
And I pray that it does not damage or debilitate him.
The pews have been in the church for more than 100 years.
When we were at the church, our tour guide reminded us that the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church is not simply a “tourist attraction” or a stop on the “Black History Tour,” but it is still a vibrant church that serves many of the same roles in the community that it’s served since its beginnings. So while we mourn the four little girls and America’s defective past and turbulent racial present, we can celebrate the fact that we are still here–worshipping, dreaming, doing, and creating change in our own small areas of the world.
The Sixteenth Street Baptist Church “Where Jesus is the Main Attraction,” Birmingham, Alabama
For more information about the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church, click the image above. For a succinct historical overview of racial tensions in Birmingham, the bombing, and convictions in the murders, click here: The 16th Street Church Bombing.
The Children’s March. Sculpture depicting the attack of a child protester. Children braved police, fire hoses, dogs, and jail.
Sixteenth Street Baptist Church
“The Back of the Bus.” Birmingham Civil Rights Institute
The world watched in horror as atrocities were committed against Blacks in Birmingham.
Give Us the Vote. Birmingham Civil Rights Institute