Merlene Davis: Still in fear 50 years after the Birmingham church bombing

Herald-Leader columnistSeptember 14, 2013 

I was 12 in 1963 when four young black girls were murdered in Birmingham by men we would now call terrorists.

Addie Mae Collins, Carole Robertson and Cynthia Wesley, all 14, and Denise McNair, 11, were in a basement restroom near the front of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church when a bomb exploded, killing them and injuring 23 other people. The Sunday school lesson that day was "Love your enemies."

I don't recall my parents talking to me about the murders. We had watched and discussed the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom that had drawn the world's attention to the nation's capital and to the desire of black people to be treated equitably.

We had talked about Alabama Gov. George Wallace who had tried to defy federal laws mandating black and white students be educated together.

But I don't recall a single word spoken about the cruel, inexcusable deaths of four young girls as they attended church.

Today marks the 50th anniversary of those murders. And while there have been marches and gatherings to commemorate the mass of humanity that converged on Washington in 1963, there still seems to be a subdued fear or quiet shame associated with that church bombing in Birmingham.

There were other murders during those troubled times, other displays of how little black life was valued, even young black life, and I'm pretty sure we talked about those acts.

It was part of the "always be on guard" lessons, part of "this is how you should behave" lessons, part of "do this to stay alive" lessons that black parents back then had with their children.

But how could parents explain to their children that going to church could get them killed in America?

Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., and several members of the House and Senate attended a special ceremony earlier this week when the Congressional Gold Medal was awarded to the girls posthumously. It is the highest civilian honor given by Congress.

In noting one of the mysteries of the bombing, McConnell said nearly every stained glass window was blown out in the blast with the exception of the one of Christ leading children. In that window, only Jesus' face is missing.

"The symbolism was potent," he said.

And it was.

Soon after those murders, Congress passed the Civil Rights Act of 1964 which banned discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, sex and national origin. Our government acted together, despite politics in Washington or threats from the South, to do what was right, to pencil in Christ's face for this country.

Justice, however, was a bit harder to come by.

Although the FBI had identified a few suspects in the murders, Director J. Edgar Hoover contended that an all-white Alabama jury would never convict the men. So he closed the case.

In 1971 Alabama Attorney General William Baxley reopened the case, charging Robert E. Chambliss with murder. He was convicted in 1977 and died in prison in 1985.

In 1993, the FBI reopened the case, leading to a life sentence for Thomas E. Blanton, Jr., in 2001 and a 2002 conviction for Bobby Frank Cherry who also died in prison in 2004. One other suspect died before being charged.

Three grown men with hearts filled with hatred killed four girls and robbed black families of a sanctuary — literally and figuratively — which were already few in number.

Why didn't my parents discuss that with us, their three children?

But then how could our parents, the final refuge in a country that was forging fear, allow us to notice they were no longer breathing as deeply as they should? How could they tell us we were not as safe as we should be?

At 8 p.m. on Friday, the Hallmark Channel is airing a TV movie based on the award-winning chapter book The Watsons Go to Birmingham, by Christopher Paul Curtis. The Lexington Public Library gave those books out free one summer, trying to encourage reading with middle schoolers.

The book tells the story of a black family who takes a road trip from Michigan to Birmingham in 1963, where they encounter prejudice and violence, the likes of which they had never experienced. Then, the youngest character is caught inside the Birmingham church when it is bombed.

After things settle down and the family returns home, lingering emotions are discovered and healed with love.

The movie or book might help parents discuss that period in history with their kids. I think my parents feared we'd have lingering emotional trauma and chose to just let us live in our own little worlds.

I can understand that.

I am a parent now, a black parent, who has watched one child fall, another teeter, and one find safe footing.

I still don't breathe deeply.

Merlene Davis: (859) 231-3218. Email: mdavis1@herald-leader.com. Twitter: @reportmerle. Blog: merlenedavis.bloginky.com.

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