Today brings a frightful anniversary of an act of terrorism that served as a sober and sad reminder, a half century ago, of the limits of good will in America’s long struggle to create a society worthy of its founding aspirations.
It was 50 years ago that an explosion at the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Ala., killed four black girls — three of them 14 years old and one 11. They were martyrs to a cause they helped to make America’s own.
Wait, I can hear you wondering: Didn’t we just mark an important 50th anniversary for the civil-rights movement, the poignant celebration surrounding the March on Washington and the Rev. Martin Luther King’s dream?
The answer, of course, is yes, we did. The meaning of this new commemoration is to remind us that even the most basic American dreams aren’t fulfilled with lightning speed or in straight lines.
It was not a figment of historical imagination when we concluded that Reverend King had moved an entire nation from the dark valley of segregation onto the sunlit path of racial justice. Nor is it a mirage of memory to recall that he pulled many Americans from the quicksands of racial injustice and pointed to their redemption on the solid rock of brotherhood.
But not quickly. Indeed, it took 14 years for a Klansman to be indicted for the murder of the Birmingham girls. Another member of the invisible empire was convicted more than two decades later, in 2001. A third was sentenced to life in prison in 2002.
This episode, a doleful coda to what Reverend King, in his first sentence at the Lincoln Memorial, described as “the greatest demonstration for freedom in the history of our nation,” has become part of the American song, which of course is in part a Negro spiritual.
References to the bombing can be found in songs made famous by Joan Baez, John Coltrane, Phil Ochs, and Bruce Springsteen, among others. There are allusions to it in Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon, one of President Obama’s favorite books. The four girls were awarded the Congressional Gold Medal this year.
Only days before the Birmingham incident, Reverend King had spoken of Alabama and its “vicious racists, with its governor having his lips dripping with the words of interposition and nullification.” Only a week before the bombing, Gov. George Wallace had remarked that Alabama needed a “few first-class funerals” to stop integration.
After the bombing, Reverend King wired the governor, saying that “the blood of four little children … is on your hands.” He added: “Your irresponsible and misguided actions have created in Birmingham and Alabama the atmosphere that has induced continued violence and now murder.”
But Governor Wallace, who had been defeated at the schoolhouse door earlier that year, when federal marshals enforced integration at the University of Alabama, suffered another defeat in September. The bombing and the funerals they produced did not stop the integration of Birmingham schools.
The church, which Reverend King had used as a meeting place for his marches against segregation in Birmingham, has entered American history as a landmark in the fight for freedom, along with Boston’s Old North Church, where the one-if-by-land, two-if-by-sea message was flashed to freedom fighters of a different age.
The year 2013 has been rich with commemorations. There were the 150th anniversaries of the Emancipation Proclamation and the Battle of Gettysburg, and in November arrives the sesquicentennial of the Gettysburg Address.
And there were the 50th anniversaries of so many 1963 landmarks: Lyndon Johnson’s speech at Gettysburg that foreshadowed the civil rights bill, the confrontation at the University of Alabama and John Kennedy’s speech recognizing the black struggle as a moral struggle — as well as Reverend King’s “dream” speech and the Birmingham bombings.
All are tied by a common theme — freedom, which not incidentally was the theme that animated President Kennedy in that other struggle of the 1960s, the Cold War. All of 1863 and 1963 were consumed by debates and battles over freedom: the freedom of states to secede, the freedom of blacks to live outside of slavery, the freedom of the descendants of slaves to live in an integrated society.
From the perspective of 2013, the triumphs of the civil-rights movement seem to have an inspiring inevitability to them: Of course the enslaved would be freed, of course the barriers at the lunch counters and the water fountains would fall, of course voting rights would be affirmed and in their wake members of town councils and governors and senators and then a president would be elected. But “of course” does not describe the course of history, which has a path, but not a logic.
“We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed,” Reverend King wrote earlier in 1963, in his Letter from a Birmingham Jail.
The battle at the lunch counter was not won at the Lincoln Memorial with Reverend King’s speech, nor even at the funeral bier for four little girls in Birmingham. Nor was it won by the time the centenary of the Gettysburg Address arrived two months later, nor even three days after that, when President Kennedy was killed and President Johnson dedicated himself to the civil rights bill.
All these are stones on the path of freedom. In this anniversary year, it is good to be reminded that not only presidents and a King are heroes of freedom. Four little girls are too.
David Shribman is executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.
Contact him at: firstname.lastname@example.org