BIRMINGHAM, Ala.—Police believe that after midnight on Sept. 15, 1963, four white Klansmen planted 11 sticks of dynamite wrapped in paper in the basement stairwell of 16th Street Baptist Church, a Birmingham church founded by emancipated slaves in 1873. That September, the first few African-American children had integrated the white Birmingham public schools. The furious Klansmen set the timer on the bomb for Sunday morning.
The church had designated that day as Youth Sunday. As Sunday school classes finished before the worship service, a gaggle of girls in the downstairs bathroom prepared for their special roles. Cynthia Wesley, 14, and Carole Robertson, 14, were planning to serve as ushers. Addie Mae Collins, 14, and Denise McNair, 11, would sing in the choir. The lesson in their mothers’ Sunday school class that morning was titled, “The Love That Forgives.”
Segregationists were detonating bombs all over Birmingham in 1963. In May, they bombed the front half of Rev. A.D. King’s home. The minister and his family, in the back rooms, survived uninjured. That same day two bombs exploded at the Gaston Motel, where civil rights leaders, including Martin Luther King Jr., had been meeting. No one died. Twice, once in August and again in September, they bombed the home of one of the first black lawyers to practice in Alabama, Arthur Shores. One blast knocked his wife unconscious. No one died.
At 10:22 a.m. on Sept. 15, 1963, the dynamite exploded feet from where Cynthia, Carole, Addie Mae, and Denise were preparing for the service. The pastor of the church at the time, John Cross, was one of the first to the rubble, and he and others dug out the bodies. He didn’t recognize the girls because they were so burned and disfigured. “They were all on top of each other, as if they had hugged each other,” Cook related in an oral history for the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute.
He found Addie Mae’s sister Sarah in the bathroom too, alive but with her face covered in blood. She lost an eye. Other children had sprinted away from the church after the bomb went off: Frantic parents found them scattered across downtown Birmingham.
The bombing shifted the course of the civil rights movement, erasing any possible ambivalence. “No matter who you are, or what color you are, when a kid is killed, it throws a different light on things,” said Tom Cherry, the son of one of the convicted bombers, decades later in an interview with Texas Monthly. A question now: What came of those deaths? What has changed in Birmingham in the 50 years since that bomb exploded?
Fifty years later, the South has become a better place for blacks to live. African-American church leaders in Birmingham agree that race relations between blacks and whites have massively improved, and they think it’s in part because black Southern churches were the heart of the civil rights movement in the first place. But despite all these positive developments African-American church leaders today see growing disparities and systemic divides that aren’t unique to the South.
“All is not well because you can’t legislate love,” said Janice Kelsey, a lifelong Birmingham resident and an African-American.
A few months before the bombing, teenager Kelsey had joined a children’s march in Birmingham that police disbursed with water hoses and dogs. Kelsey, arrested, spent four days in jail. Her school expelled her, but a court reversed that. No court could reverse the 16th Street explosion, which killed Janice’s friend, Cynthia. Despite that horror, Kelsey has stayed in Birmingham her whole life and watched her city change. She is now a deacon at Greater Shiloh Missionary Baptist Church, which four months ago invited Shade Mountain Baptist, a white church in a wealthy Birmingham suburb, to come into a poor area of Birmingham, the West End, for a joint worship service.
At the joint service the black church choir sang, bringing the house down. Then the white choir sang, without exactly bringing the house down, but the black congregation clapped and shouted encouragement. Shade Mountain pastor Danny Wood preached, and tried to adapt to his audience talking back to him with words of encouragement during the sermon. After Wood’s sermon, Greater Shiloh pastor Michael Wesley stood up and said, “If we can meet here it has a chance to happen in municipalities. It has a chance to happen in cities. It has a chance to happen around the world.”
It was the first time in its 122 years of existence that Greater Shiloh had held a joint service with a white church. Wesley told me he and Wood have connected over their shared vision for the city and their desires for church growth. Wesley hopes Shade Mountain will help his church develop leaders, and he has encouraged his congregation to meet with Shade Mountain leaders and learn what they do day to day. He has told Wood that his church might have something to learn from Greater Shiloh, too: Their churches have begun doing service projects in Birmingham together.
“It’s been a long time, but we had to work through a lot,” Wesley said: “The old guard is passing on. The young, more educated minister is coming to the leadership ranks. … Even in the black church, some of the older pastors would not have been as ready to engage in interracial relationship because they had grown up in the bitterness of the struggle, and perhaps would have been less trusting and less willing.”
Wesley noted that African-American church leaders are now struggling with black-on-black violence and shattered families: “The enemy is not so much other people–the issue violence-wise is coming from people who know one another.” Wesley doesn’t support segregation—he calls it “a hiding place for bigotry”—but says the problems are in part a by-product of forced integration, because black neighborhoods in Birmingham before desegregation, were close-knit.
Parents, Wesley said, kept their children close and avoided leaving neighborhoods because they feared Ku Klux Klan and police brutality. Kids spoke respectfully to adults and elders: “People would speak on the street, it was the manners you were taught. You approach someone and say, ‘Hello, ma’am, how are you?’” In the past 50 years those ways have eroded: “Now people take more of a hands-off approach. People live more isolated lives. It’s possible to live in a neighborhood and not know the people across the street.”
But the black church’s integral role in the civil rights movement has born fruit 50 years later in improved relations between blacks and whites.
“Black people especially in the South have been incredibly forgiving. That to me is a miracle,” said Randy Nabors, a white pastor who grew up in the projects of Newark, N.J., and has long been involved in ministries that cross racial lines like New City Fellowship in Chattanooga, Tenn.
Wesley emphasized the importance of “outward-focused theology” that strives to bring in unchurched people and apply the Bible to daily life: Greater Shiloh now hosts financial seminars, adopts school districts, has neighborhood youth programs, and is opening a health clinic and working on a job training program.
That list of activities indicates how attention has moved away from civil rights as such to issues of economics and education. In the first half of the 20th century, African-Americans fled north to find jobs and escape harsh Jim Crow laws. But now, as the South has become physically safer for blacks and offers better job prospects with a lower cost of living, that population shift (known as the Great Migration) has reversed. From 2000 to 2010, according to Census data, the percentage of the country’s black population living in the South grew and the population living in the Northeast and Midwest shrank. The black populations in Florida, Georgia, North Carolina, and Texas grew by more than 20 percent.
There’s a downside: In Alabama, only about half of black males graduate from high school in four years, and some graduates are poorly educated. Many African-Americans are well aware, as they see the success of Asian-Americans, that attributing economic disparities primarily to racism has grown old: Cultural attitudes toward family and education seem to be stronger forces, with kids growing up in two-parent families having big advantages.
A good education is more closely related to a good job in Birmingham today than it was 50 years ago when Birmingham was a center of steel manufacturing, and people without much education could still get decent-paying jobs. Now, the steel industry is gone. The city’s economy is based on the healthcare industry, and the economic outlook is bleak for those without a high-school diploma. Almost every African-American I interviewed in Birmingham mentioned the racial divide in the public-education system, and how black children were stuck at the terrible city schools while whites attended better suburban schools.
The economic divide between white and black communities is also wide. Today the median wealth of a white household is 20 times that of a black household, according to Pew Research Center analysis of government data from 2009. That gap is the largest since the government began gathering data. Median black wealth dropped about 50 percent from 2005 to 2009, largely due to the housing market crash. In Birmingham, “African-Americans control the city government–and 1 percent of the wealth,” said Ahmad Ward, a historian at the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute.
Some Christian community development organizations in Birmingham neighborhoods are working to alleviate the economic disparities. Christian Service Mission has its home in a warehouse in a rusted-out neighborhood near the train tracks. Its energetic director Tracy Hipps, a short white man with a drawl, is friends with just about every African-American pastor in town. He tried to explain the organization’s work as we walked through the warehouse, which that particular day had an excess of ice cream sandwiches. “You know what? Let’s real quick get in my truck,” he said.
Hipps zoomed out of the industrial blocks and over a bridge to downtown Birmingham. “You see those houses up there?” he said, pointing to the ridge around the city. “That’s the mountain. The richest people live up there.” He drove through Avondale, a low-income neighborhood in which his organization works, and then across the train tracks that divide poor Avondale from a gentrifying neighborhood where the city has built a new park. He pointed out a new brewery and a barbecue joint in the gentrified neighborhood. His mission partners with churches along one interstate highway, “the corridor of resources,” and connects them with churches on another interstate, “the corridor of need.”
As African-American church leaders watch children in their communities struggle at school, and young men struggle with unemployment, prison populations have grown. Racist echoes remain: Nationwide, African-Americans are four times more likely to be arrested for marijuana violations than whites, even though the two groups use the drug at about the same rate.
Carl Ellis Jr., an African-American theology professor at Redeemer Seminary in Dallas, and an expert on the history of the African-American church, agrees that the black community has its own internal crises. He says the black church as a whole fails to do a great job solving those issues, but he also sees an opportunity for the black church to teach the larger evangelical church how to function as a minority within the larger American culture, which increasingly marginalizes churches both white and black.
“The evangelical church does not have a theology of suffering, whereas the black church does,” Ellis said. “The African-American church has an incredible opportunity to help our dominant brothers operate and thrive in a subdominant position.”
Fifty years ago, Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. voiced this theology of suffering when he delivered a short eulogy for the four girls at 16th Street Baptist a few days after the bombing: “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. ”
Fifty years later on a summer Sunday in the basement of 16th Street Baptist, young people gathered where the bomb went off. They laughed and chatted, sharing a platter of cupcakes to celebrate a girl’s birthday.
Barnett Wright, an African-American who is part of the reversal of the Great Migration, moved to Birmingham 13 years ago from Philadelphia and covers civil rights issues (among other things) for the Birmingham News. “People believe because it’s the South, it’s worse,” Wright said. “It’s not. There’s racism in the South, South Boston, South Chicago. … The white structure [in Birmingham] is more sensitive because of what happened.”
The Philadelphia Fire Department officially desegregated in 1952, but schools had de facto segregation into the early 1960s, and court battles about school segregation lasted up to the 1990s. Carl Ellis, the Redeemer Seminary theology professor, notes that “There was not really a civil rights movement in the North.” Today, Bob and Dwendolyn Dillard, longtime African-American Philadelphians, said people don’t discuss race: Black husbands might talk about it with their wives in the privacy of their own homes, but not in public.
David Apple, the head of Tenth Presbyterian Church’s mercy ministry, who has long worked on racial issues, said Southern racism “was in your face. In the North, it’s subtle.” African-Americans in Philadelphia feel it, and teacher Kevin Little (pictured), a longtime Philadelphian, knows the habits a black man must adapt. When Little, who attends “Tenth Pres,” sees a purse in a pew, he won’t sit near it. Once he brought a reusable bag into a Walgreens, and the off-duty officer in the store told him to check the bag up front. “If you’re white, you’re saving the environment,” Little said. If he sees flashing lights, even if he’s trying to catch a bus, he won’t run: “A black man running—you just don’t do it.”
Little recalls everyday frictions: Someone in his church asking if he’s the janitor. His daughter, ashamed of her hair. A Sunday school children’s curriculum that only depicts white people, teaching about John Calvin or John Newton but not African-Americans of faith, a classroom with pictures only of white children. (Tenth Pres changed it.) Little said white people will sometimes complain to him that he constantly bring up the issue of race. He returns: “We’re race conscious because we have to be.”
—Emily Belz in Philadelphia