Sunday, September 15, 2013

The Day a Birmingham Church Was Bombed

A couple of weeks ago, the nation paused to remember Dr. Martin Luther King's inspiring "I Have a Dream" speech that was given at the Lincoln Memorial in 1963.

That was certainly a great moment — an uplifting moment — in American history. But 2½ weeks later, in the truest sense of Sir Isaac Newton's laws of physics, there was an equal and opposite reaction.

Fifty years ago today, the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Ala. — which had been used as a meeting place for King and other civil rights leaders (and a gathering place for civil rights rallies) — was bombed during the Sunday School hour. Four black girls were killed. Three were 14 years old, and one was 11.

As much credit as one may be tempted to give King for the legislative and judicial triumphs of the civil rights movement of the '60s, it is my opinion that what happened 50 years ago today was the movement's critical moment.

There were still a few places in America in 1963 — as there are today — that were thought to be safe places to be — home, school, church. To attack one of any of these was to attack all such places in America — and thus it was an affront to nearly all Americans, whether they supported or opposed the civil rights cause, because nearly all Americans have homes (however modest), attend school and/or frequent a house of worship.

Martyrs are often necessary for truly transformational movements to achieve their objectives, and I think it was that way with the civil rights movement. King's speech was a tremendous high for supporters of the movement, but, as such things often do, it seems to me that it may have created a sense of complacency. The momentum of the movement may have stalled.

I don't know. It was before my time.

But, based on what I have read, in books and newspaper accounts, it was far from certain, in the aftermath of King's speech, that the Civil Rights Act would pass. The bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church restored the movement's momentum.

Sympathetic Americans were probably tempted to believe, after seeing King's speech, that the movement's triumphs were coming at an historically rapid clip, which may have led many to assume that supporting civil rights and voting rights legislation were no–brainers — while unsympathetic Americans may have felt a sense of urgency to stop what was perceived as a threat to a way of life.

In the aftermath of the bombing, many newspapers in the North lamented that they hadn't taken the movement as seriously as they should have. The Milwaukee Sentinel, for one, wrote in an editorial that "the hour is late and the situation is critical."

The bombing had the effect of ratcheting up sympathy and support for civil rights. On July 2, 1964, the Civil Rights Act was enacted, winning congressional approval by better than 2–to–1 margins in both the House and Senate.

It probably wouldn't surprise many 21st–century observers to know that most of the opposition in both chambers came from Southerners.

But it might surprise those observers to know that most of those Southerners were Democrats.

And it might also surprise those observers to know that, outside the South, nearly as many Republicans as Democrats supported the passage of the Civil Rights Act.

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