September 15, 1963.
Less than three weeks after the March on Washington rally where Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered his famous “I Have a Dream” speech, an infamous event occurred: the horrendous racial, hate-filled bombing of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church, Birmingham, Alabama, in which four little girls were innocently killed.
Yesterday marked the 50th anniversary of this tragic bombing and these painful deaths.
The four girls killed were Addie Mae Collins (age 14), Cynthia Wesley (age 14), Carole Robertson (age 14), and Denise McNair (age 11). Denise was a friend of Condoleeza Rice. Besides these deaths, many others were injured. Adding to the death and injuries was the question about how to process it all, which only added to the hurt and pain.
This day was Youth Sunday and Pastor John Cross was going to preach on the theme “A Love That Forgives” based on the words of Jesus recorded in Luke 23:34. Shortly after the bombing with dust barely settled, Pastor Cross preached his abbreviated message to the dazed and furious congregation on the church’s front steps by saying “We should be forgiving as Christ was forgiving.” Rev. Charles Billups added to the sermon by encouraging those present to “Go home and pray for the men who did this evil deed. We must have love in our hearts for these men.”
Three days after the bombing a funeral was held for three of the girls (there was a separate funeral for Carole Robertson). Six thousand people were in attendance! As part of the service Martin Luther King, Jr. preached a “Eulogy for the Young Victims.”
Here is how King began:
These children – unoffending, innocent, and beautiful – were the victims of one of the most vicious and tragic crimes every perpetuated against humanity. And yet they died nobly. They are the martyred heroines of a holy crusade for freedom and human dignity.
And then, importantly, he frames it all in the sovereignty of God, trusting that He alone is the One who is able to “wring good out of evil” (cf. Rom. 8:28).
And so my friends, 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.
Rooted in the cross of Jesus Christ and the forgiveness they had received, he encourages the families of those who lost their daughters to process this evil based on the truth and reality of Jesus Christ.
I hope you can find some consolation from Christianity’s affirmation that death is not the end. Death is not a period that ends the great sentence of life, but a comma that punctuates it to more lofty significance. Death is not a blind alley that leads the human race into a state of nothingness, but an open door which leads man into life eternal. Let this daring faith, this great invincible surmise, be your sustaining power during these trying days.
Here are a few other timely pieces about the anniversary:
“Beauty from the Ashes of 16th Street Baptist Church” This is a story of God’s transforming grace in the life of Junie Collins Williams, the older sister of Addie Mae Collins who was killed in the blast.
Timothy George writes of an incredible woman who was also incredibly transformed by the grace of God: “While the World Watched: Carolyn Maull McKinstry and the Birmingham Bombings.” McKinstry was friends of these four girls and had been with them in the restroom moments before the blast. McKinstry has written of her experience and of her great God in While the World Watched: A Birmingham Bombing Survivor Comes of Age during the Civil Rights Movement (Wheaton: Tyndale, 2011). In reading McKinstry’s testimony you will read one example (of many!) of the truth of what Martin Luther King, Jr. said of God and how He works in and through tragedy: “God still has a way of wringing good out of evil.”
Though there has been progress made in the racial divide in America, it still exists and there is a long road that remains ahead. In and through it all, the gospel of Jesus Christ provides the answer and the hope.
We remember. We pray. We engage. We hope.