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:
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