Hell Came To Birmingham: 9.15.1963

mhagandefaultMichael Hagan ’15

At 10:22 AM on September 15, 1963 Addie Mae Collins, Denise McNair, Carole Robertson, and Cynthia Wesley were preparing for 11:00 service at 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama when an explosion ripped through the building. Addie, Denise, Carole, and Cynthia were killed and twenty-three others injured when a bomb sent stones and shrapnel flying into the basement room where children prayed at the close of their Sunday school time. The devil had come to 16th Street Baptist in a turquoise Chevrolet; Robert Chambliss deposited the bomb under the steps of the Church, and drove away leaving hell in his wake.

I have been to 16th Street Baptist Church once in my life. To be honest, I did not know where I was last winter when I crossed the street from the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute to make a phone call. I took a seat on the steps of a downtown church, and dialed relatives I had not seen in years to tell them I was in their neck of the woods. As I reconnected with my cousin and arranged to visit her family it occurred to me where I was. I stood up out of a gut sense of reverence, but immediately sat back down overwhelmed by the experience of reconnecting with my cousin and her children at a place where families were robbed of their children by a fiery explosion of hatred and nitroglycerin.

A local man there could tell that a friend (who had now joined me) and I were strangers to the area, and began to tell the story of the bombing. He walked us around to the memorial placard, and showed us the stained glass image of Christ with a group of children. He told us the story of how every window in the church was destroyed by the blast except for one. The stained glass body of Christ remained intact, though his face was shattered.

This unanticipated encounter with history helped me to grow my perspective on the civil rights movement and gain insight into the experiences of those who lived through and led it. So much of the movement flowed right out of the doors of 16th Street Baptist, and this is why it was a target. But the bombing did not derail the people of God from the pursuit of justice. Jesus taught that whatever is done for the least among us is done for him. Christ’s face was shattered when Chambliss and his coconspirators saw an object of hatred where they should have seen the face of God: in the eyes of innocent children. But Christ’s body remained united as a heroic movement advanced the cause of justice through radical acts of peace. Hell had come to 16th Street Baptist Church, but it was met with confident strains of “We Shall Overcome” rooted in the gospel promise that even the gates of hell will not prevail against God’s people.

The four girls murdered 50 years ago in Birmingham rest in peace, and the movement for justice so galvanized by their memory serves as a testament to the truth that “the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.”

Pray for continued healing of scars that remain fifty years later.

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