I was born in 1971, about eight years after this happened. I have always felt the presence and blessing of the Civil Rights movement in my life. Here is a reflection written by a clergy colleague in Virginia. He was a first grader in Birmingham the day of the Sixteenth Street Bombing. He wrote this sermon on the anniversary of that event.
Reflections on Sunday September 15, 1963.
On Sunday morning, September 15, 1963, the Ku Klux Klan bombed the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, killing four girls. This murderous act shocked the nation and galvanized the civil rights movement. Even as a child, that heinous act shaped my thinking about the nature and purpose of the church and the destructive power of hate. I was sitting in the sanctuary of North Highlands Methodist Church that morning when I heard ‘there was trouble down the hill.’
Our family lived about one mile from Sixteenth Street Baptist Church. I had just started the first grade at Martin School in the North Highlands community of Birmingham. I have my first grade class photo hanging upstairs in my personal study. Little Jimmy O’Quinn is there sitting in his desk hands folded and looking quite mischievous. When I look at that photograph I do wonder what happened to all the other children. I wonder if they have the same feelings that I do about that tumultuous year. The world as those little first grade children knew it would change. Few of us would say that 1963 was a good year.In 1963, Birmingham was known as one of the South's most segregated cities. That same year, newly-elected Gov. George Wallace physically barred two African-American students from entering the University of Alabama and Birmingham's Commissioner of Public Safety, Eugene "Bull" Connor, sparked controversy with his use of fire hoses and attack dogs to disperse civil rights protesters.
On Good Friday, April 12, Martin Luther King was arrested with Ralph Abernathy by Police Commissioner Eugene "Bull" Connor for demonstrating in support of the garbage workers for the City of Birmingham. During the eleven days he spent in jail, MLK wrote his famous Letter from Birmingham Jail in a response to a call by prominent white clergy for patience. Also in 1963, John F. Kennedy would be assassinated on November 22nd. Civil unrest and violence were the norm in 1963 Birmingham. It is September 15th that has the most meaning for me.
My father was pastor of North Highlands Methodist Church, which was located on what was also known as ‘Dynamite Hill’ because of the Klan activity that year. The Sixteenth Street Baptist Church was a well-known meeting place for civil rights activists, where Martin Luther King Jr. and others planned marches, sit-ins and other nonviolent protests. That fact made the church building a target, but no one expected an attack to come during the crowded Sunday morning services.
One memory from that Sunday was that the doors of North Highland Methodist Church were locked during the church service. As a six year old, I knew this was an unusual step for a church. I learned since, several other churches locked their doors during their Sunday service. There was a lot of fear that morning. At the moment sitting inside a locked building, we didn’t know what we feared only that there had been some trouble down the hill.The nation later learned fourteen-year-olds Cynthia Wesley, Carole Robertson and Addie May Collins, as well as 11-year-old Denise McNair, were killed in a church washroom when the bomb detonated. Twenty-two others were injured. I reflect on the ages of these children because I had just turned six-years-old the day before. The news of other children not living to adulthood seemed poignant. That act of terrorism also drove home that even being in a church building isn’t a true refuge from those who hate.
Members of the Ku Klux Klan were immediately suspected -- a 1965 FBI memo to agency director J. Edgar Hoover named Robert E. Chambliss, Bobby Frank Cherry, Herman Frank Cash and Thomas E. Blanton, all locals and alleged Klansmen, as possible culprits. But the FBI closed its investigation in 1968 without filing any charges. A 1980 Justice Dept. investigation concluded that Hoover prevented agents from disclosing their findings to prosecutors.
Alabama Attorney General Bill Baxley reopened the investigation in 1971, but it took him half a decade to bring charges against suspect Robert Chambliss because the FBI refused to cooperate for years. The watershed moment in the Chambliss trial came on Nov. 15, 1977, when Chambliss' niece, The Rev. Elizabeth Cobbs testified that her uncle had made comments to her suggested his involvement in the bombing. Chambliss was convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to life in prison. He maintained his innocence until he died in 1985.
As a pre-ministerial student at Birmingham-Southern College, I had several close friends. Elizabeth Cobbs, in college now 36 was one of my dear friends. We were just a handful of students who were also serving as student local pastors. Libby, was married with two children and was a pastor of a small United Methodist church near Legion Field in Birmingham. We often spoke of lectures and celebrated our work as beginning pastors. I treasure those memories with her and our other friend, Paul Tucker. Paul and I went on to seminary together. Paul is now married and serves in Memphis, Tennessee.
Libby had a different course. The Klan harassed her until her marriage broke and she left the United Methodist Church. She was relocated to Texas and lived under an assumed name. Paul told me she sold real estate. Later, we learned she died of cancer. Libby Cobb was a hero in life and in death. I am a better person for knowing her.
Even fifty years after the bombing; it is a quick and powerful reflection that the church should be open to all instead of restricted to the approved few. My mind contrasts the locking of the doors on Sunday September 15th, 1963 with the old southern evangelical expression for an altar call being referred to as the opening the doors of the church.
Separate water fountains and restrooms are a memory. Debates if the race of a teacher changed the quality of a child’s education are past. Yet, the effects of sin remain. On my trips to Birmingham, Alabama I often drive by the former site of North Highlands Church (it closed and was paved over just two years later to be an exit ramp to I-65) I will drive through the neighborhood to look at the old parsonage and pray for the people who now live there. I conclude my trip down the steep hill past Sixteenth Street Baptist Church. I remember seeing Libby standing at the reconstructed site of the blast. My wandering North Birmingham It is a reflection of a spiritual journey I did not know I was on until later in my life. My memory is my journey.
I can remember other things about North Highlands Church. Mr. Benson was a man who seemed to be 106 to me as a six year old. Every Sunday he had something for the children in the church. I recall getting a car and I remember a postcard with the drawing of buffalo stampeding as Indians were in wait with bows and arrows. I remember his praying in church for what seemed like forever. I recall his favorite song: The Lilly of the Valley. I remember him because he paid attention to this little six-year-old boy who was stuck in church. Mr. Benson wanted me to feel good about being in church. That was his message to me and the other children in the church.
The most powerful message from these reflections is that we should not underestimate what our children are learning in those adult moments of ours. God is speaking and the children are listening. Understanding may not happen for decades. I am unsure of the meaning of the lesson I learned at age six. Now fifty years later, I am closer than I was in knowing the meaning, but there is still so much to filter through. God’s message is planted in each of us, even with the child. It is up to us to wrestle the full meaning for the rest of our life. We have to filter through it all until it becomes clear.
My prayer is that we finally find the clarity we need to live, work and breathe in a world so tenacious in its hate that children are blown up. We may not know what our world will be like at the 100th commemoration of September 15, or of the other acts of 1963. We may not be able to make sense of our 9-11-2001 memories. We may not make sense of gassings and bombings in Syria and currently in the news. Yet somewhere, even if it is in the heart of a six-year old sitting in a church; God is planting a seed.
My September 15th is significant to my calling to church life and ministry. What is the date of your calling?
- Jim O’Quinn