This is a guest post by Robert Widell, who is unlucky enough to be my colleague in the history department at the University of Rhode Island, yet still watches Oregon crush Tennessee with me despite his affinity for the Auburn Tigers. His book, Birmingham and the Long Black Freedom Struggle is coming out later this month from Palgrave MacMillan. You can follow him on Twitter at @ProfessorWidell.
Today marks the fiftieth anniversary of the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama. Earlier this week the four girls that were killed in that blast, Addie Mae Collins, Carole Robertson, Cynthia Wesley, and Denise McNair, were each awarded a posthumous Congressional Gold Medal in a ceremony that also included Addie Mae’s sister, Sarah Collins Rudolph, who survived the attack but was herself critically injured. Much of the coverage of the anniversary has noted the role of the tragedy, coming as it did on the heels of the March on Washington that summer and the Birmingham Campaign that spring, in further galvanizing national support for the Civil Rights Movement. Pointing out subsequent milestones like the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights of 1965 is a seemingly obligatory part of such stories. Indeed, the popular narrative of the bombing portrays it as a reference point for how much progress the country has made since that day.
Retellings of the efforts by Alabama’s Attorney General, Bill Baxley, to reopen the case in the 1970s and secure the conviction of Robert “Dynamite Bob” Chambliss – as well as the successful convictions of Chambliss’ co-conspirators, Bobby Frank Cherry and Thomas Blanton, in the early 2000s – reinforce such notions. These stories celebrate the fact that Baxley pursued the case despite being a white Alabama native and emphasize that the convictions are remarkable in part because they would have been unlikely in the immediate wake of the bombing.
When presented as a story of “justice delayed yet not denied,” though, the bombing is too easily rendered simply a tragic misstep in the country’s inevitable march toward post-racial harmony. In truth, it was a cruel reminder of how much work remained to be done. And while the story of Baxley’s response to the hate mail he received from white supremacist Edward Fields has to be considered one of the finest uses ever of official state letterhead, a focus on one man’s personal commitment to justice obscures the more intractable institutional racism that persists into the present.
At least part of the problem is Americans’ unease with dealing directly with the United States’ violent and brutal past. Americans wish to consign events like the bombing to an unenlightened past that no longer bears any relation to the present. In a similar way, Americans have an understandable desire to transform tragedies like the church bombing into stories of transcendence with ultimately uplifting resolutions. Death, particularly that of young children, is difficult to accept and the search for silver linings, however faint, becomes a coping mechanism. Victims are transformed into heroes and martyrs; their deaths viewed as part of what Martin Luther King, Jr. referenced in his call to “redeem the soul of America.”
Although such dynamics are worthy of further exploration, the fiftieth anniversary of the bombing also provides an opportunity to reassess the popular understanding of Birmingham’s local freedom struggle and the impact of the tragedy on the city itself.
Birmingham burst onto the national stage in the spring of 1963 when images of schoolchildren being attacked by fire hoses and police dogs drew national and international media attention. Those attacks were part of the response by police commissioner Eugene “Bull” Connor to the campaign led by King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) and its local affiliate, the Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights (ACMHR), to push for the desegregation of the city’s downtown stores and businesses. Remembered, as well, for inspiring King’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” the Birmingham Campaign was a primary factor in convincing President Kennedy to draft what would become the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
Yet, as Glenn Eskew demonstrates in But for Birmingham, as much as the Birmingham Campaign generated national momentum for the Civil Rights Movement, it did little to change conditions for African Americans at the local level. Poverty, police brutality, inadequate municipal services, poor housing, and other problems remained persistent concerns for Birmingham’s black community.
In this context, then, the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church is less the story of an event that would further galvanize white support for the national movement and more a cruel reminder that, on the local level, Jim Crow was alive and well. In fact, Birmingham’s well-deserved reputation as a particularly violent defender of white supremacy – garnering the city the name “Bombingham” – meant that from a local perspective the bombing was in many ways business as usual.
At the same time, though, Birmingham’s black community had an equally long history of challenging Jim Crow. Indeed, had it been otherwise, violence would not have been so necessary to uphold it. In the more immediate term, there would have been no 1963 Birmingham Campaign without the local foundation laid by the work of Fred Shuttlesworth and the ACMHR. In the longer term, Birmingham had been home to indigenous efforts aimed at challenging Jim Crow since the early twentieth century. This longer history of black activism, especially within the context of the city’s penchant for racial violence, ensured that in the wake of the bombing Birmingham’s black community continued to do what it had always done: it organized and fought back.
In the years between 1963 and the election of Birmingham’s first black mayor, Richard Arrington, in 1979, a new generation of black activists emerged to carry the local black freedom struggle forward into the late-twentieth century. Comprised of Vietnam veterans, welfare recipients, public housing residents, steelworkers, hospital workers, and others, this new generation took to the streets, courthouses, union halls, and churches to stake their claim to not just “civil rights” but a broader freedom agenda that included economic justice, black self-determination, and an end to racial violence.
Unfortunately, the new phase of black activism that emerged in Birmingham during the post-1963 period has been excluded from both the local and national narrative of the movement. It was this new phase, though, that demonstrated the true legacy of the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing. Through their actions, groups like the Committee for Equal Job Opportunity, the Public Employees Organizing Committee, and the Alabama Black Liberation Front made it clear that, even in the face of deadly violence, they would extend the long black freedom struggle into the 1970s and beyond.
On this day, then, I will remember Denise McNair, Addie Mae Collins, Carole Robertson, and Cynthia Wesley. But I will do so in way that views the tragedy as a reminder that the long black freedom struggle that their deaths was intended to stop must continue. In the current historical moment – when African Americans remain confronted by mass incarceration, deepening poverty, and continued racial violence – it is essential to remind ourselves that frustration and despair must give way to activism and engagement.