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There was an overflow crowd of thousands at the Sept. 18, 1963 funeral services for three of the four black girls killed in a church explosion in Birmingham, Ala. Three days earlier, an explosion ripped apart a Sunday-school classroom at the Sixteenth Avenue Baptist Church.
In 1963, Sept. 15th was a Sunday, just as it was this year, five decades later. At the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Ala., it was Youth Sunday, the day that the young people in the congregation led the worship service.
Denise McNair, who was 11, and Addie Mae Collins, Carole Robertson, and Cynthia Wesler, who were all 14, were dressed in their Sunday best and about to go up to the sanctuary when a bomb made from 19 sticks of dynamite and placed by members of the Ku Klux Klan exploded, killing the four girls and injuring 20 others.
Birmingham was, the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. said, “the most segregated city in the United States.” The year 1963 in Birmingham saw not only the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing but also King’s famous “Letter From A Birmingham Jail,” and the Children’s Crusade; the Rev. King permitted students to protest, and they were met with the fire hoses, police dogs, and billy clubs of Birmingham’s infamous commissioner of public safety, Bull Connor.
The bombing and film on the TV news of the young protesters’ brutal treatment seared the conscience of the nation and, along with the assassination of President Kennedy two months later, helped garner support for the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
It took more than a decade for state authorities to take legal action, but in 1977 one of four suspects, Klan leader Robert “Dynamite Bob” Chambliss, was convicted of murder. One suspect died before being charged, and two were convicted of murder in 2001 and 2002 — 38 and 39 years after the bombing.
Poets Langston Hughes and Dudley Randall both wrote poems about the bombing, and a fine poet’s pen has the capacity to convey facts and stories with a power that historical narrative doesn’t necessarily have. The simple language and traditional meter of Dudley Randall’s poem “Ballad of Birmingham” gives us an imagined exchange between a young African-American girl and her mother in Birmingham. The girl asks if, instead of playing, she can take part in the Freedom March:
“No, baby, no, you may not go,
For the dogs are fierce and wild,
And clubs and hoses, guns and jails
Aren’t good for a little child.”
But the girl protests that she won’t be alone, marching “[t]o make our country free.” Other children will be there, too.
“No, baby, no, you may not go,
For I fear those guns will fire.
But you may go to church instead
And sing in the children’s choir.”
The girl dresses in her Sunday best, puts on her white shoes and white gloves, and heads off to church, and her mother smiles. But:
“... when she heard the explosion,
Her eyes grew wet and wild.
She raced through the streets of Birmingham
Calling for her child.
“She clawed through bits of glass and brick,
Then lifted out a shoe.
‘O, here’s the shoe my baby wore,
But, baby, where are you?’” *
*Dudley Randall, “Ballad of Birmingham” from “Cities Burning.” Copyright ©1968 by Dudley Randall. Used with the permission of Randall’s estate.
Peter Gilbert is executive director of the Vermont Humanities Council. This essay first aired as a commentary on Vermont Public Radio.
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