Triumph of the Cross: Remembering the Martyred Children of Birmingham
Today is the Feast of the Triumph of the Cross, a day for Catholics to meditate on this universal symbol of Christian belief and its entrance into Catholic tradition. Today also marks another, more recent anniversary that calls to mind the redemptive power unleashed by the suffering of innocents — in other words, the power of the cross.
On a Sunday morning 45 years ago, America suffered one of the most hideous acts of racist terrorism. On the morning of Sept. 15, local members of the Ku Klux Klan detonated a bomb under the steps of the predominately African American 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama. Four young girls were killed and twenty seriously wounded as they changed into choir robes following their Sunday school lesson.
The bomb was, and is, a terrible reminder of the persistence of virulent racism in the United States. To judge by popular remembrances of the Civil Rights movement in 21st century America, most Americans would like to believe that racial bigotry was laid to rest forever in Martin Luther King Jr.’s triumphant march on Washington. But the March on Washington occurred weeks before the bombing, and the bombing in Birmingham was part of a wave of violent attacks by white racist groups across the South in the wake of the rising nonviolent civil rights movement with Birmingham at the eye of the storm.
King delivered the eulogy at the children’s funeral, and argued forcefully that they did not die in vain:
God still has a way of wringing good out of evil. And history has proven over and over again that unmerited suffering is redemptive. The innocent blood of these little girls may well serve as a redemptive force that will bring new light to this dark city. The Holy Scripture says, `A little child shall lead them.’ The death of these little children may lead our whole Southland from the low road of man’s inhumanity to man to the high road of peace and brotherhood. These tragic deaths may lead our nation to substitute an aristocracy of character for an aristocracy of color. The spilled blood of these innocent girls may cause the whole citizenry of Birmingham to transform the negative extremes of a dark past into the positive extremes of a bright future. Indeed this tragic event may cause the white South to come to terms with its conscience.”
The horror of the bombing and similar acts of racist violence did finally crack the thick walls of white America’s complacency, and such acts only served to broaden support for the civil rights movement. And, in the words of a great American ballad marking the bombing, the choir continued to sing of freedom. The bombing can be said to mark a turning point in the civil rights movement and contributed to support and passage of the U.S. Civil Rights act the following year.
But we must never forget what the lives of these martyred children have taught us. For all that has changed in American in the past 45 years, racism and racist violence tragically persists as a threat to the American dream. As historian Barbara Ransby argued in a piece on the 45th anniversary of the Birmingham bombing for the Progressive:
It is not only naive to think we have completely eradicated racism in America, it is dangerous.
To be sure, racist violence never consumed the entire population or even the majority. Most people of color were not direct victims. And most whites did not throw the blows or the bombs. They simply looked the other way.
Apathy or willful ignorance in the face of racism and injustice yields the same net result, whether it is the blatant and widespread racism that showed itself in Birmingham, or the more subtle but no less real racism of today.
We couldn’t afford that apathy or that ignorance yesterday. We can’t afford it now.”