Tragedy from civil rights era lingers in painful memories

Black Ala. church where bomb killed 4 survives in faith

June 28, 2000|By Ann LoLordo | Ann LoLordo,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

BIRMINGHAM, Ala. - Years after a Klansman's bomb exploded Sept. 15, 1963, at 16th Street Baptist Church, killing four young girls, Myrtle Whetstone would replay that Sunday morning in her mind.

She arrived early for services that day and climbed the side steps to the church, stairs she and others learned later had been booby-trapped with explosives.

Was there something out of the ordinary about those steps that she had missed? A clue that would have alerted her to the destruction to come?

"I will never forget that day," Whetstone said of the civil rights era act of terrorism.

"If I had been observant enough, maybe I could have helped avoid the damage and the deaths of the girls."

Today, nearly 37 years after that horrific event, Whetstone remains a member of the big brick church at 16th Street and Sixth Avenue.

She is a witness to history and a testament to the legacy of the Birmingham institution that has been a house of worship during 127 years.

In the sanctuary where Paul Robeson once sang, pastors have shared the pulpit with politicians and performers.

From this church, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. launched his lunch counter sit-ins and mass rallies to protest racial inequality in the South.

The bombing ensured the church's place in the annals of the civil rights movement, but the congregation suffered personally and pastorally.

Membership declined in the years after the bombing, as the church was repaired and rebuilt. It has grown gradually.

Today 500 people worship there, almost as many as in the days before the bombing. And the church remains a symbol of the civil rights struggle.

Cornerstone

It also forms a cornerstone of a downtown Birmingham plaza devoted to the civil rights movement. On one corner is Kelly Ingram Park, where the brutality of the time is immortalized in statues of snarling police dogs and children cowering before city water cannons.

On another corner is the Civil Rights Institute, a museum and archive that has drawn nearly 800,000 visitors since it opened in the fall of 1992.

16th Street Baptist Church began offering tours after one too many people knocked on the presbytery door. Myrtle Whetstone is among the church volunteers who take visitors past the restored stained-glass window depicting Jesus Christ, the face of which was blown out in the 1963 blast.

Memorial to victims

They escort them to a nook in the church basement where the bombing victims -Denise McNair, 11, and Cynthia Wesley, Addie Mae Collins and Carole Robertson, all 14 - are memorialized.

The bombing and its aftermath have become part of the church's ministry, especially under the guidance of the Rev. Christopher M. Hamlin, who became pastor in 1990.

"It has meshed with who we are and what we have become," said Hamlin, a historian and theologian.

Hamlin's duties go beyond visiting the sick and officiating at weddings and funerals. He met with federal law enforcement officials during their reinvestigation of the 1963 bombing, which has led to two new arrests.

The one man convicted of murder in the bombing died in 1985 while serving a life sentence.

Before the civil rights movement, the church was host to lectures, community meetings and performances because there were few auditoriums open to blacks.

Today, celebrities such as jazz trumpeter Wynton Marsalis and U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno appear there because of its civil rights past. But the church, which opened in 1873 as the First Colored Baptist Church of Birmingham, is not a dusty museum.

It is a thriving congregation with five singing groups, Sunday school and adult Bible classes, a youth ministry and an outreach program for those in financial need. After the bombing, the church lost members who were too fearful to return. But not Myrtle Whetstone and her family.

"It never crossed our minds to leave," said Whetstone. "That was my home church."

Repair, regrowth

Whetstone saw the church repaired, reopened and graced with a new stained-glass window, a gift from Wales paid for by Welsh people. When a former Klansman, Robert W. Chambliss, was convicted in the bombing in 1977, Whetstone questioned whether others remained at large.

She thanked God last month when she learned that police had arrested two other white men, also ex-Klansmen, and charged them in the bombing, almost 37 years after the fact. A hearing in the case will be held Friday in federal district court here.

"I am hoping that if the two men are responsible and if they are found guilty, it will bring closure to this thing that has been hanging over us all these years," said Whetstone, whose husband and daughter were also in the church on the day of the bombing.

A `lot of accommodating'

Recognizing the attention the May 17 indictments would bring to the church, the music minister summoned the full choir for the Sunday service that came after the arrests of Bobby Frank Cherry and Thomas E. Blanton Jr. Television cameras were there that morning.

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