Lessons of Birmingham bombing echo 35 years later

March 20, 1998|By Freeman A. Hrabowski III

SINCE the recent airing of Spike Lee's Oscar-nominated television documentary, "Four Little Girls," I've been contacted by many people of various ages, racial and ethnic backgrounds

and walks of life who are eager to talk about that tragedy of 35 years ago.

All of them seem deeply moved by the film, and that's something that gives me hope so many years after that senseless act destroyed the lives of those innocent children, one of whom was a friend. Who wouldn't be troubled by the images associated with the bombed church.

It was a fellow Baltimorean, Pulitzer Prize-winning author Taylor Branch, who suggested to Mr. Lee's staff that they contact me about being in the documentary. Mr. Branch knew of my Birmingham roots and involvement in the civil rights movement.

One for history

Initially, after hearing about the project from Mr. Branch, I was somewhat reluctant to become involved because I didn't know what to expect and I had always found it painful to focus on the bombing. But, after talking with family and friends, I decided it was important to help leave a historically accurate picture of that difficult time.

Birmingham is well known for its role in the 1960s civil rights movement. In the large black community there, churches were central to our lives, and so it's not surprising that we were absolutely stunned in the fall of 1963 by the vicious and cowardly bombing of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church.

At the time of the bombing, I was a 13-year-old sitting in the congregation at Sixth Avenue Baptist Church, just a few miles from Sixteenth Street Baptist. I recall our pastor, the Rev. John Porter, being handed a note and, subsequently, informing us of the bombing during the service.

At first you could hear a pin drop, then people began to cry openly because many of us had relatives or friends who attended that church. Reverend Porter led us in prayer and then dismissed the congregation, calling for calm. It was impossible to get close to the bombed church because of the traffic and confusion, so my parents and I went home to learn what we could from the telephone and television.

Soon we learned the identities of the dead girls: Denise McNair, Carole Robertson, Addie Mae Collins and Cynthia Wesley. We were devastated. We knew these families, and Cynthia was my classmate and friend.

From that moment on, my friends and I didn't feel safe anywhere for years -- not even a church could protect us from the horrors of hatred.

Many people said the bombing was in retaliation for the progress we had made as a result of children marching with Martin Luther King Jr. just four months earlier. As a participant in those marches, I had come to have great hope in the power of peaceful protest. Those experiences -- the marches, seeing friends killed -- made an indelible impression on the children of Birmingham. In fact, many of us have had nightmares for years. But even more important, I have found that adversity can make us stronger and even more determined to succeed.

Familial grief

As viewers today, looking into the faces of the four little girls' family members, Americans across the country sense the families' pain and determination to go on with their lives and forgive; we sense the unfulfilled dreams the parents had for their daughters; we sense their strong family traditions; and, in the end, we know with absolute certainty that those four girls were loved.

In the process, we also learn much about ourselves. When we see how the families had worked hard to give their daughters the best they could, we witness core values held by most Americans, then and now, notwithstanding all of our differences. We also feel the shame that millions of Americans experienced as a result of this tragedy. These are particularly important lessons for America's youth and even for adults.

The documentary is significant because it forces us to think about our history, our own lives, the state of race relations today and our future as a nation.

The film cautions us to pay attention to how we treat each other, and to be vigilant about problems of prejudice and hatred. Though using police dogs and fire hoses to quell disturbances is almost unimagined in America today, we must not forget that they are part of our recent past, and that even our children have witnessed church bombings.

Equally troubling, they see children in our cities killing each other almost daily. We still are a country where millions of children live in poverty and perform poorly in school as a result, though we know that academic achievement has a strong and direct bearing on their future.

While ours is an imperfect nation, we have made progress, and we need to understand how that progress was achieved and build upon it.

Though my memories of the bombing 35 years ago are vivid and still painful today, my own experiences since then give me great hope -- hope that the four little girls did not die in vain, and that we will work to prevent such tragedies.

Freeman A. Hrabowski III is president of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County.

Pub Date: 3/20/98

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