The 16th Street Baptist Church sits in the middle of downtown Birmingham, Alabama. During the heart of the Civil Rights movement, when Birmingham was known across the nation as “Bombingham,” marchers and protesters would assemble at the 16th Street Baptist Church, then walk across the street to Kelly Ingram Park, where they demonstrated against segregated public facilities and the exclusion of black men and women from local businesses. The church served as organizational headquarters for political protests in the city and a symbol of the movement for justice and equality. It also became a target of whites in Birmingham who resisted such efforts.
The story of the 16th Street Baptist Church is among the most infamous of the Civil Rights movement. In September 1963, Birmingham faced a federal court order to admit the first black students to three different public schools. It was a tense and hostile time. Sunday, September 15, was Youth Day at the church, when children planned and led morning worship. Four young black girls left their Sunday school class to head downstairs to the basement to prepare for their role in the service. At 10:22am there was a sound like thunder, and the whole building trembled. A bomber had tunneled under the church basement and placed 19 sticks of dynamite under what turned out to be the girls’ restroom. The bomb detonated, and the rear wall of the church crumbled. Denise McNair, Addie Mae Collins, Cynthia Wesley, and Carole Robertson all died under the collapsed building. Denise was 11 years old. Addie Mae, Cynthia, and Carole were 14.
In the weeks after the bombing, the nation mourned the loss of these young women and grasped for meaning in the midst of tragedy. Some took the bombing as a sign that no one was safe. Insurance companies in Birmingham began canceling commercial policies on black-owned businesses. Civil Rights leaders asked the federal government to send in troops to restore order. For others, the bombing was impetus for new efforts at racial reconciliation. Among the 8,000 mourners at the girls’ funeral were 800 Birmingham clergy, black and white, making it “many times over the largest interracial gathering of clergy in the city’s history” (Taylor Branch, Parting the Waters, 892).
As mourners looked for a symbol of the senseless violence, many focused on a broken stained glass window in the church. It was the only window to survive the bombing – an image of Christ on the east wall. Only something was missing. With most of the panes intact, the bomb had blown straight through the face of Christ. Where there was once the face of Jesus, the blast left only a gaping hole. You can see an image of the window in the Birmingham Public Library archives.
A week after the bombing, noted author James Baldwin appeared next to the great Protestant theologian Reinhold Niebuhr in a television program titled, “The Meaning of the Birmingham Tragedy.” I listened to the exchange (from the Niebuhr audio collection) a few weeks ago as I researched the events of September 1963 for a sermon at Duke Chapel. Baldwin’s potent words have remained with me. The moderator asked, “Does this faceless picture suggest to you a meaning of the Birmingham tragedy?” Baldwin relied:
“It suggests to me several meanings. If I were going to be cynical this morning, I would say that the absence of the face is something of an achievement, since we’ve been victimized so long by an alabaster Christ. It suggests much more seriously something else, and to me it sums up the crisis that we’ve been living through. If Christ has no face, then perhaps it is time that we … give him a new face. … And make the whole ideal, the whole hope of Christian love, a reality.”
Baldwin refuses to sugarcoat the cruelty of the bombing, and he names the legacy of racism, prejudice, and hatred that made such an act possible. His words keep me mindful of the ways Christians continue to participate in violence and oppression. He forces me to examine the parts of my own life that are broken and in need of repair.
But Baldwin is not entirely cynical, and he calls for new action that aligns with the “hope of Christian love.” He calls for a revolution in how we treat one another. This forces me to look again for ways to give Christ “a new face” in the world. His words challenge me to find new forms of faithfulness.
What do Baldwin’s words mean to you? What do you see when you look into the broken window of the Birmingham church?
These reflections were taken in part from a sermon delivered at Duke Chapel on February 10, 2013. You can find video and text of the sermon here.