Early one Sunday morning in 1963, Carole Robertson put on a pair of shiny, black high heels. They were new — she had a role in today’s church service and her mom wanted her to look nice.
That same day, Addie Mae Collins and her three sisters woke before dawn so their mother could press each girl’s hair and feed them breakfast.
Nearby, Denise McNair stopped to say goodbye to Whitey, their family dog, and pat him on the head on her way out the door.
The night before, Cynthia Wesley came across an obituary for a baby in the newspaper and asked her mother why young people died.
I turn away from reading about the lives of these four, young girls and walk into the next room of the Civil Rights Institute in Birmingham, Alabama. Whereas the previous exhibit included timelines, facts, pictures and videos displayed like a scrapbook along the walls, this room is set up as a replica of an office — the office of Richard Arrington, the first Black mayor of Birmingham elected in 1979.
Behind the imitation of his desk, there is a large window framing the building across the street, 16th Street Baptist Church. Walking over to the window, I stare at the red brick structure, which stands out against the clear blue January skies. I imagine the civil rights leaders like Martin Luther King Jr. walking up its wide front steps, through one of the three arches leading to the main entrance. Looking at the two domed towers that frame the front of the building, I think back to the images I had just seen of what it looked like after the explosion, after Carole (14), Addie (14), Denise (11) and Cynthia (14) were killed on September 15, 1963.
The bomb must have been set around the corner towards the back of the building. On our walk here from the conference center, my husband Christopher and I noted a tombstone-style memorial for the four girls on the far side of the building. Perhaps that’s where it happened.
Did the KKK members who set the dynamite wait nearby for it to go off, knowing that men, women and children of all ages would be filing into the house of worship? Did they go to their own church to bide time? Since they were White men living in the Bible Belt in the 1960s, my assumption is that they were at least members of a nearby church. Did they put on their suits and sit on a hard wooden pew, feeling self-righteous that they carried out God’s justice? I hope not. I fear so.
Did they put on their suits and sit on a hard wooden pew, feeling self-righteous that they carried out God’s justice? I hope not. I fear so.
Looking over my shoulder, I can see back into the previous room and through the set of large square windows that overlook Kelly Ingram Park. A museum attendant stands there, dividing his attention between the outside and inside world.
“Are you planning on going over to the park to see the statues?” the attendant asks Christopher, who stopped to look through the windows.
“Maybe,” he answers with a smile, able to make a friend anywhere. “Should we? What do you think?”
The conversation between the two men shifts to football, so I turn my attention back to 16th Steet Baptist Church. The bombing happened 60 years ago. Maybe it’s because I grew up knowing the church’s name or because I just walked through a museum exhibit dedicated to it, but it looks so ordinary to me. I don’t know what I expected, but it’s just a building. Without a knowledge of the past, I wonder if you could walk by without sensing the death and trauma and resistance and endurance that it represents.
I think about Carole, Addie, Denise, and Cynthia — the lives they could have led, the empty chairs and beds they left. And I think about the news report I heard this morning about Tyre Nichols, a man my age, who was brutally beaten and killed by police after being pulled over for a traffic stop in Memphis, Tennessee, not too far from here.
In the days that follow, I will read more about Tyre’s death and listen as my friends and colleagues of color try to process it — Do they watch the police body camera video that captures Tyre’s death? How do they honor Tyre? How can they bear another message telling them that they don’t matter? As I process this, I will keep thinking about our afternoon at the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute — the patterns that repeat in American history and the stories we tell ourselves.
Sensing Christopher’s movement into the next room, I walk around the replica desk and join him at a group of placards outlining the reaction to the bombing. The signboards are placed below a set of windows opening out towards 16th Street so that whenever you take a break from reading and look up, you are faced with the church in its ordinary, historic glory.
I keep thinking about our afternoon at the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute — the patterns that repeat in American history and the stories we tell ourselves.
After the bombing, there was widespread horror at the loss of four innocents. The magnitude of the hatred and the need for justice even broke through to the White population, and the federal and local governments launched into action. Within days, law enforcement arrested Robert Edward Chambliss, John Wesley Hall, and Charles Cagle. However, there was not enough evidence to connect the men to the bombing. So, they were charged with possession of dynamite, a misdemeanor with a $1,000 fine and six months of jail — a sentence which was soon rescinded.
Years later, it was revealed that the FBI had the evidence to press federal charges against members of this group in 1965 — two years after the bombing. However, then-head of the FBI J. Edgar Hoover refused to act on this information. It wasn’t until 1977 – 14 years after the bombing – that Robert E. Chambliss, the leader of the bombers, was brought to trial and convicted of murder. He died in prison in 1985, maintaining his innocence. Thomas Blanton was convicted in 2001 – 38 years after the bombing – and Bobby Frank Cherry was convicted in 2002 — 39 years after. A fourth suspect, Herman Frank Cash, died in 1994 before he could be brought to trial.
When looking at the timeline of the civil rights movement, the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church is credited as a horror that offered perspective to many White Americans, the placards explain. It displayed the oppression and senseless racism facing Black people in America. This awareness, some historians say, garnered public support for the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex or national origin.
Coming to the end of the display, I glance again at the red brick building across the street. My public school education in a largely White, wealthy suburb of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, covered the bombing and made the connection to the Civil Rights Act. I learned a more honest, nuanced history of the civil rights movement in college as a Black history major. Most recently, I took a class in seminary about the diverse theologies and organizing tactics of the long civil rights movement, beginning in the 1930s and extending into today. But I don’t remember learning about the delayed justice of these convictions.
Turning from the placards and windows, I find a bench in the corner of the room to sit and stew while Christopher finishes the exhibit. My lack of awareness about the delayed justice following the 16th Street church bombing is not surprising. While I think perspectives have shifted in recent years, at least in the circles I inhabit, it’s been my experience that majority American culture often places a period after the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, or maybe after the election of Barack Obama in 2008 — as if America’s sin of slavery, abuse and manipulation end there. Time for a new sentence.
For instance, the story the Civil Rights Institute tells largely wraps up in the 80s — perhaps this is because the museum was opened in 1992 or because it is focused on Birmingham’s role in the civil rights movement of the 50s and 60s. But as someone who has lived for the past 30 years, as someone who is processing the death of Tyre – an unarmed Black man who died in the hands of police – I know that there is more to say.
We apply a certain romanticism to the civil rights movement in American culture that is both earned and manufactured.
We apply a certain romanticism to the civil rights movement in American culture that is both earned and manufactured. As you look deeply at characters, factions and structures of the movement, there is a sense of something sacred. As I walked through the halls of the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute, I watched black and white news footage of giant police dogs leaping and snapping at Black protestors or fire hoses pinning young men and women against a brick wall and thought, That happened across the street. I read quotes from Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” where he eloquently challenges White clergy to understand God’s justice in a bolder way, and thought, He wrote that here.
When you look closely at the civil rights movement, especially in places physically connected to its history, it feels like your eyes are opened to the fact that you are standing in a graveyard — a mere six feet of soil separating you from the beauty and ugliness of the past. There is a certain holiness to this realization — to seeing clearly the goodness and evil that is so accessible within all of us, to seeing the power of working towards a common cause.
But our culture’s hyperfixation on the civil rights movement of the 50s and 60s – the story that we tell ourselves about how the evil of chattel slavery was overcome – feels rehearsed too. While remembering the past can provide wisdom and transformation, remembering can also falsely create a neat narrative with deified leaders. It is human nature to desire happy endings and continuity. But when we tie the civil rights movement up so neatly in a bow, it becomes limited as an epic story with a short list of heroes rather than a communal response born out of oppression — an active, alive movement that is still dynamic today because White supremacy is still the operative norm.
After several minutes, Christopher comes to join me on the bench and I call an Uber to drive us over train tracks and past defunct smokestacks to a restaurant in Avondale, a former company mill town. There, we will try Alabama’s particular barbeque condiment: white sauce. Our driver is an immigrant from Nigeria who, after asking about where we are from, chats good-naturedly with Christopher about his time in Philadelphia — a five-hour drive from our home in Pittsburgh, but close enough.
While remembering the past can provide wisdom and transformation, remembering can also falsely create a neat narrative with deified leaders.
In the coming days, I will run over our time at the Civil Rights Institute like water on a river rock. Hearing about Tyre’s death before touring the museum and visiting American history in a significant place seem to grant me a new perspective. Not only did I see the strengths and weaknesses of rehearsing a civil rights history focused on the 50s and 60s, but I saw history fold over on itself in a way that connected Tyre to Carole, Addie, Denise and Cynthia – the public outrage that eventually faded, the immediate response of the government that slowly fizzled back to a place that conserved power. I realize that this is an outline I’ve seen played out many times during my life.
Where is their museum?
I think of Ahmaud Arbery’s life, Breonna Taylor’s life, George Floyd’s life, Philando Castile’s life, Sandra Bland’s life, Trayvon Martin’s life, Michael Brown’s life, Tamir Rice’s life, and the lives of so many others — I suppose I should add Tyre Nichols to this list. Where is their museum? Like the Civil Rights Act is connected to the 16th Street Church Bombing, will some breakthrough in civil rights happen that supposedly adds meaning to their deaths? Or are we simply left with the horror of violence? Do we need the perspective of time? Or can we honor their deaths as significant today?
As our Uber moves along the neat grid of Birmingham streets, I take in the two-story brick buildings that surround us, the occasional skyscraper standing in the distance. With the stories from the Civil Rights Institute fresh in my mind, the air feels thick with ghosts, real and imagined. At the same time, I know that around the corner from here, Christopher and I had an amazing meal on our first day in Birmingham with boiled peanut hummus – so creamy and light. I know that a few blocks to the east there is a line of restaurants and bars that are full, even on a weeknight, of young professionals. A few blocks to the south lies a convention center full of Christian educators and an empty table in the marketplace where I should be sitting. Across the street from the convention center stands a theatre where Dave Chappell and Chris Rock performed last night. I am reminded that no matter the history, no matter the news, life continues to march on.
In addition to my memory of the museum, the dissertation “We’re Going Too!” The Children of the Birmingham Civil Rights Movement by Gisell Jeter-Bennett was a valuable resource.