RI Council of Churches Civil Rights Pilgrimage – April 2016


5/5/2016

By Scott Spencer

September 15, 1963 was youth Sunday at the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, AL.   On this special day, the young people would lead the worship service with the boys wearing dark pants and white shirts and the girls wearing white dresses.  Carole Robertson would wear her first pair of heels that day.

While 5 young girls prepared for worship following Sunday school in the women’s room, a powerful explosion went off directly beside the bathroom.  Eight-year-old Condoleezza Rice heard the explosion from two miles away at the Presbyterian church pastored by her father.

The blast killed four of the 5 girls:  Addie Mae Collins (14), Carole Robertson (14), Cynthia Wesley (14), and Denise McNair (11).

Four members of the Ku Klux Klan had planted 19 sticks of dynamite under the church.  No one was indicted for the murders until 1977.  This was one of over 50 bombings of black homes, businesses, and churches in a city that was renamed by many as “Bombington.”

The Sunday school lesson that morning was “A Love that Forgives.”  The sermon (which was never preached) was to be based on Luke 23:34:  “Then Jesus said, ‘Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do.’”

At the funeral for the girls, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. offered these words of comfort:    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.

This history and so much more were some of the blessings 20 pilgrims from RI, Massachusetts, and Philadelphia received during last month’s Civil Rights Historical Tour of Alabama and Georgia.  The group was initially multi-racial and clergy and lay with co-leadership by two RI Conference clergy, Chontell Washington and myself. The group, which was organized through the RI Council of Churches and lead by a national tour company – Freedom Lifted – also visited:

  • Selma, AL to focus on the march for voting rights and the bus boycott in Montgomery
  • Atlanta, GA to visit the new civil rights museum and the birth home and church home of Dr King – finishing with worship at the new Ebenezer Baptist Church
The group is meeting soon to reflect on the experience and discuss ways to continue our dialogue on race and justice.

Much of this history is filled with extremes of hatred and violence.  It can be difficult to see and hear, as it is still difficult to see and hear extremes of hatred and violence today.  But we came back with a deeper appreciation for the courage and conviction of those in the Civil Rights movement and inspired to find our own ways to carry on their work and vision.

And so I close with this.

The bomb blast at the 16th Street Baptist Church damaged many of the stained glass windows, including the Good Shepherd window depicting Jesus directly to the left of the point of explosion.  Amazingly only the face of Jesus was blown out.  What might God be trying to say to us?  Was it too terrible for even Jesus to look upon?  Was the vision for the movement to be blinded by this terrible tragedy?  Or was it this?  Are we called today to be the loving and forgiving face of Jesus to a world that can sometimes be hateful and unjust?



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