Months before the annual observance of the bombing that rocked a congregation, a community and the nation, 16th Street Baptist Church has been getting ready.
Renovations were taking place in June: fresh paint and new technology for the classroom spaces in the basement. Just as at worship services, Sunday school attendance ebbs and flows each week, depending on the number of longtime members and curious tourists. This Sunday (Sept. 15), which marks the 56th anniversary of the attack that killed four young girls, the church hopes to unveil the refurbished space where visitors can watch videos about kindness, caring for all humans no matter their race, and the civil rights history of the church and its community.
“After you leave this place, we don’t just want you to experience history,” the Rev. Arthur Price Jr. said in a June interview at his church. “We call the four girls ‘angels of change’ and our hope is that people will leave inspired, become agents of change as a result of what happened here.”
The Sixteenth Street Baptist Church sanctuary, which features images of the four girls who were killed in 1963, in June 2019. RNS photo by Adelle M. Banks
“We’re adding more content about not just what happened in 1963 but how the church was organized and the tension that was going on in the city during that time,” Price said in a subsequent interview about the church that was at the forefront of the civil rights movement before and after the bombing.
The pastor was busy this week preparing for his church’s “memorial observance” that is expected to feature special guests including a prominent U.S. chaplain, the pastor of another church that was attacked and a presidential candidate.
Lt. Col. Ruth Segres, an Air Force chaplain at Joint Base San Antonio-Randolph in Texas, will be leading the Sunday school lesson.
“That Sunday school lesson that was taught that Sunday (of the bombing) was ‘The love that forgives’ and she will teach a lesson surrounding that theme,” Price said of Segres, who is in charge of recruiting Air Force chaplains.
Just before the church bells are set to toll at 10:22 a.m. — the moment on Sept. 15, 1963, that the dynamite set by members of the Ku Klux Klan went off — former Vice President Joe Biden “will give a reflection about the day,” the pastor said.
“I think we have a symbiotic relationship, considering the two churches experienced acts of violence within their place of worship,” said Price of the AME church where nine worshippers were killed by a white supremacist during a 2015 weekday Bible study.
“This is a way that we can come together in solidarity and preach the message of Jesus Christ and how he teaches us to stand tall and not to fear in the face of adversity.”
Flowers are placed on a marker remembering the four girls who were killed in a bombing on Sept. 15, 1963, at Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, in June 2019. RNS photo by Adelle M. Banks
The observance recalls the deaths of Denise McNair, Addie Mae Collins, Carole Robertson and Cynthia Morris, who is also known as Cynthia Wesley. They were preparing for the church’s Youth Day when they died. As a poem by Camille T. Dungy in a recent special edition of The New York Times Magazine noted, had they lived, one of the girls would have been 67 and the other three 70 this year.
“We’ll toll the bells for the four girls and two more times for the two boys who lost their lives that day,” Price said, referring to two black male teenagers who were shot to death in Birmingham in the hours after the bombing.
The church, which dates to 1873, reopened in June 1964. Price said the basement was renovated the following year and has since featured fellowship gatherings, men’s breakfasts and Bible studies.
Convictions in the killings did not occur for decades.
A memorial at Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, where four girls were killed in a bombing on Sept. 15, 1963. RNS photo by Adelle M. Banks
A “Justice Delayed” exhibit at the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute across the street from the church noted that Robert Chambliss, Thomas “Tommy” Blanton Jr. and Bobby Frank Cherry were identified as potential suspects as the FBI initially investigated the blast. But it wasn’t until much later, after subsequent probes, that they were tried and received sentences of life imprisonment. Cherry was the last to be convicted, in 2002.
Beyond the annual Sept. 15 observance, at other times there are reminders of the tragedy, some marked with grief, others with hope.
In May, Price officiated at the funeral of Chris McNair, father of one of the four girls killed in 1963, and a former Alabama state legislator. And just last week, Price welcomed to the church a government delegation from Wales, including its minister for education, Kirsty Williams.
“She was proud to see the Wales window that was given by the people of Wales in 1965 to the church because the people of Wales wanted to make a statement of solidarity with the movement,” he said of the Sept. 5 visit.
Sixteenth Street Baptist Church, right, is across the street from the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute, left. RNS photo by Adelle M. Banks
Price said the visitors from Wales were heeding the message he hopes his church inspires even before the church launches the new videos about kindness across racial lines.
“That’s one of the things that the Welsh government did,” he said. “They presented us with a plate with a black hand and a white hand extended to each other, dealing with even though we’re different, we’re not deficient, and that we ought to be working together so that we make sure that what happened here 56 years ago never happens again.”
LEGEND: A statue of Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth stands in front of the Civil Rights Institute in Birmingham, Alabama.
As an evangelical Christian teaching theology in a secular university, over the years I have cleaved to civil rights saints like Fred Shuttlesworth for wisdom and encouragement. I have, of course, never been attacked by racist mobs or police dogs, nor have I been put in jail for speaking the name of Jesus. Nevertheless, it is impossible not to get a whiff of Jim Crow in an academic culture that continues to evade the theological discoveries of Reverend Shuttlesworth and his brother and sister travelers in that great Pentecostal moment called the American civil rights movement. Rev. Shuttleworth’s death last week once again reminded us of the centrality of faith in the black freedom struggle.
Like the prophet Amos, the tender of sycamore trees who was called in from the sticks to proclaim the justice of the Lord, Rev. Shuttlesworth agitated righteously, with guns pointed on him and lynch mobs forming everywhere, a fully realized African American male, an exemplar of civil courage and costly discipleship. He offered the segregated South a generous helping of hilaritas, a “boldness and defiance of the world and of popular opinion,” as Dietrich Bonhoeffer once wrote, “a steadfast certainty that in their own work they are showing the world something good (even if the world doesn’t like it).”
An exchange with the Birmingham, Alabama, police commissioner Bull Connor during the heat of the city sit-ins offered not only high theological drama but ample evidence of theological deftness and imagination:
Connor: You know what I think? I think you have done more to set your people back and cause more trouble than any Negro ever in this town.
Shuttlesworth: Mr. Commissioner, whether I’ve done more to set them back or you, that’s a matter for history to decide. The problem is what will you do?
Connor: I aint’ doin’ nothin’ for you!
Shuttlesworth: I haven’t asked you to do anything for me. I asked you to do for the Negro community, of whom you are the Commissioner.
Connor: Well, I ain’t gon’ do nothing for you.
Shuttlesworth: Well, I was pretty sure you wouldn’t when I came down, but the fact is we asked, and the Bible says ask.
Bull Connor, guardian of the Southern Way of Life, came undone under the glare of the New Kingdom’s brilliant light.
Rev. Shuttlesworth continued: “I just don’t believe I have to cringe before a thing when God’s already promised it. “[For] the question comes down to … ‘Do you believe in God or not?’”
Shuttlesworth later said the only way he found such strength was in the confidence he had in “the everlasting arms of Jesus.”
What about Bull Connor? When asked by Samuel Hoskins, a reporter from the Baltimore Afro-American visiting Birmingham, whether his brutal strategies were legal, Bull shouted wildly, “Damn the Law. We don’t give a damn about the law.”
MAKING HISTORY: Rev. Shuttlesworth (far right) marching from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and others in March of 1965. (Newscom photo)
Fred Shuttlesworth gave us a glimpse of the New Kingdom: “Against the racist’s hate and scorn we are using the love of Christ, against his oppressive and abusive acts we are using the weapon of Prayer on whose mystic wings we sweep into the presence of God to lay out our troubles.” He decentered the totalizing claims of white southern Christendom, one might also say, but he did it for the sake of the in-breaking reality of the kingdom of God.
Shuttlesworth’s was indeed a soul on fire. During a speech commemorating the second anniversary of the Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights, of which he was the founding president, he framed the ongoing civil rights struggle as “a religious crusade” and a “fight between light and darkness.” He concluded:
“Thus we are never tempted to hate white people or to return them evil for evil. …Always remember that we are healed by the ‘wounds in His side,’ not by wounds we inflict upon others…. Victory waits on those who work for victory. And victory is sure — Thanks be to God which giveth us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.”
Andrew Manis explained that the Birmingham minister practiced a “holistic religious philosophy that did not separate physical, social or political needs from the spiritual,” unlike the religion of gnostic southern evangelical Christianity. Shuttlesworth operated instead out of a theological worldview that refused to segregate discipleship to Jesus and righteous action in the social order. And through the courageous faith of men and women like Rev. Shuttlesworth, our nation was changed.
NOT IN VAIN: Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth (seated) in 2007 with then-U.S. Senator and presidential candidate Barack Obama at a commemoration of the 1965 Selma March in Selma, Alabama. (Tami Chappell/Newscom Photo)
Two cultural pioneers died Wednesday: Apple founder Steve Jobs and civil rights champion Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth. Both men were hailed as bold, fearless innovators who held sway over a younger generation and who used existing “technologies” to change the world.
For Jobs it was computer hardware and software; for Shuttlesworth, it was the burgeoning Civil Rights Movement, which he invited into Birmingham, Ala. where he helped build a national stage upon which the battle for racial justice played out. Shuttlesworth rightly discerned that once Americans saw Police Commissioner Bull Connor’s hateful overreaction to African Americans’ pursuit of equality, their eyes would be opened to the cruelty and injustice of Jim Crow racism.
Jobs’ more recent triumphs may dominate the news cycle today, but for many Americans Shuttleworth’s legacy might be even more revolutionary.
A Courageous Visionary
The civil rights pioneer was 89 when he died in Birmingham, Ala. He had pastored Bethel Baptist Church there but moved to Cincinnati with his family in the early 1960s, CNN reported. In Cincinnati, he remained active in civil rights and pastored the Greater New Light Baptist Church from 1966 to 2008. Shuttlesworth returned to Birmingham in 2008 after suffering a stroke and was being cared for in a nursing home, according to NPR.
“Fred Shuttlesworth had the vision, the determination never to give up, never to give in,” Georgia Rep. John Lewis told NPR. “He led an unbelievable children’s crusade. It was the children who faced dogs, fire hoses, police billy clubs [in Birmingham] that moved and shook the nation.”
Shuttlesworth “personally challenged just about every segregated institution in the city — from schools and parks to buses, even the waiting room at the train station,” Historian Horace Huntley of the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute told NPR.
After an Alabama judge outlawed the NAACP, Shuttlesworth founded the Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights and then helped create the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. He also asked U.S. Attorney General Robert Kennedy to protect the Freedom Riders, NPR reported.
Shuttlesworth was repeatedly jailed, and his home and church were bombed, but he refused to be intimidated. In the documentary Eyes on the Prize, he said that after one bombing he told Klansman police officers to go back and tell their fellow racists, “If God could keep me through this, then I’m here for the duration,” NPR reported.
A Testament to Strength
President Barack Obama said yesterday that Shuttlesworth “dedicated his life to advancing the cause of justice for all Americans” and “was a testament to the strength of the human spirit.”
“America owes Reverend Shuttlesworth a debt of gratitude, and our thoughts and prayers are with his wife, Sephira, and their family, friends and loved ones,” President Obama said.
In 2001, President Bill Clinton awarded Shuttlesworth a Presidential Citizens Medal for his leadership in the “non-violent civil rights movement of the 1950s and 60s,” according to CNN. In the video below, Rev. Shuttlesworth reflects on his commitment to nonviolent resistance in the face of racist violence.
Shuttlesworth’s Unique Contribution
UrbanFaith asked two scholars of religion and race for their thoughts on Shuttlesworth’s significance. Here’s what they had to say:
For over twenty years I have taught a course each semester to undergraduates on Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X. Always in the process of learning we discover that the struggle for civil rights, racial justice, and human dignity in the United States was the result of tens of thousands of committed people. One of the brightest shining stars and greatest exemplars of courage in the struggle was Reverend Fred Shuttlesworth.
In 1963 Rev. Shuttlesworth invited Dr. King to bring his national efforts at confronting the evils of racism to Birmingham, Alabama, one of the most racist cities in the United States. The images of police dogs and fire hoses assaulting brave protesters, many who were children and youth, are burned into our collective memory. The entire Birmingham protest was marked by an extraordinary expression of courage. And it was Fred Shuttlesworth that most embodied this fearlessness for others to emulate.
It is not an overstatement to say that the success of the protest in Birmingham in 1963 was built on the foundation of several years of courageous acts against racism in Birmingham by Rev. Shuttlesworth. The courageous actions of Reverend Fred Shuttlesworth helped produce the achievements of the civil rights movement in the 1960s and subsequent movements for social justice in the years that followed. He leaves a legacy of always speaking and living truth—something we need more of today.
What Shuttlesworth’s story shows is that the movement was precisely that – a movement. Too often, Americans search for individuals as icons; too often they set up one person as the epitome of a story. Bill O’Reilly, for instance, often credits Abraham Lincoln for ending slavery, winning the Civil War, and healing the United States. By lodging social change in one person, Americans fail to see their history for what it was. And Shuttlesworth knew that to change a nation and to change history, it took more than one man.
Shuttlesworth was one of many heroic Americans of the mid and late twentieth
century who transformed the nation. Martin Luther King Jr., was his friend, not
his leader. They were colleagues who joined with other women and men, children and adults, to obliterate segregation. And they did so through faith – in God, in Christ, and in themselves.
Faith led Shuttlesworth to bear violence on his body (as so many others did); it led him to strain on amid death, even of children. Shuttlesworth was a movement man. No individual was bigger than the goal. When we think back to Reverend Shuttlesworth, we can remember him how he would want to be remembered: fortunate to be part of a broad struggle for freedom and uplift.
—Edward Blum, Ph.D., historian on race and religion in the United States at San Diego State University and author of several books, including W. E. B. Du Bois, American Prophet.
Former Georgia Rep. Andrew Young told CNN that Shuttlesworth helped launch the national careers of other leaders but chose to serve his churches and work locally to advance the civil rights of all people. What are your thoughts on the passing of this lesser known, but incredibly courageous leader? How does he inspire you?
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