Sunday brings a frightful anniversary of an act of terrorism that served as a sober and sad reminder, a half century ago, of the limits of good will in America’s long struggle to create a society worthy of its founding aspirations. It was 50 years ago that an explosion at the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Ala., killed four black girls, three of them 14 and one 11 — martyrs, all, to a cause they helped to make America’s own.
Wait, I can hear you wondering, didn’t we just mark an important 50th anniversary for the civil rights movement, the poignant celebration surrounding the March on Washington and Martin Luther King’s dream? The answer, of course, is yes we did, and the meaning of this new commemoration is to remind us that even the most basic American dreams aren’t fulfilled with lightning speed nor in straight lines.
It was not a figment of historical imagination when we concluded that King had moved an entire nation from the dark valley of segregation onto the sunlit path of racial justice. Nor is it a mirage of memory to recall that he pulled many Americans from the quicksand of racial injustice and pointed to their redemption on the solid rock of brotherhood.
But not quickly. Indeed, it took 14 years for a Klansman to be indicted for the murder of the Birmingham girls, with another member of the invisible empire convicted after the turn of the century, more than two decades later in 2001, and a third sentenced to life in prison only in 2002. The wheels of justice turned slowly, but the wheels of injustice moved with astonishing speed; only hours after the bombing, two black boys, one 13 and one 16, also were shot in Birmingham.
This episode, a doleful coda to what King, in his very first sentence at the Lincoln Memorial, described as “the greatest demonstration for freedom in the history of our nation,” has become part of the American song, which of course is in part a Negro spiritual. References to the bombing can be found in songs made famous by Joan Baez, John Coltrane, Phil Ochs and Bruce Springsteen, among others. There are allusions to it in Toni Morrison’s “Song of Solomon,” one of President Barack Obama’s favorite books. The four girls were awarded the Congressional Gold Medal earlier this year.