Tuesday 16 February 2016

Ballad for Birmingham

I saw four little girls sitting on a wooden bench in an old yellow brick church in Brantford this week and I thought of four little girls sitting in an old red brick church in Birmingham almost 50 years ago.  The main difference between the two groups of girls is the colour of their skin.  The Brantford girls don't have to worry about a group called the KKK.  They don't have to worry about dogs and guns and hoses and tear gas.  They don't have to worry about which fountain they drink at or which stores they shop in or which restaurants they eat at or which libraries they borrow books from or which schools they attend.  Their parents don't have to worry about the right to vote or whether they will be paid less for a job because of their skin colour or which neighbourhoods they are allowed to live in.

The Birmingham girls had a much different life fifty years ago.  Their city earned the nickname "Bombingham" after the forty-plus racially motivated bombings that had taken place there since World War I.  Alabama's governor, George Wallace, known for his pro-segregationist views, resisted black leaders' attempts to integrate Birmingham, announcing in September of 1963 that the city needed "a few first-class funerals" to stop integration. 

Only a week later, four KKK members complied by planting a box of dynamite under the steps of the 16th Street Baptist Church, a meeting place for civil rights activists like Martin Luther King Junior and Ralph Abernathy.  The Sunday School children, heading downstairs at 10:22 am, never got to hear the sermon "The Love that Forgives" since the bomb exploded.  The dynamite blew a hole in the back of the church, destroyed the steps, and shattered every stained glass window but one, showing Christ leading the children.  Twenty-two people were injured.  Four girls died including Addie Mae Collins, Denise McNair, Carole Robertson and Cynthia Wesley.

Would there be justice for the Birmingham girls?  Robert Chambliss was arrested shortly after the bombing, charged and put on trial for the crime.  However, he was only found guilty of possessing dynamite and sentenced to six months in jail and a $100 fine.  Chambliss was retried in 1977 and finally convicted of the murders, this time going to jail for life.  In 2001 the FBI announced that the crime was committed by a KKK splinter group called The Cahaba Boys.  Thomas Blanton and Bobby Frank Cherry were finally arrested and charged with the murders.  The final member of the group, Herman Frank Cash, had already died of natural causes in 1994, never seeing a day in jail. 

This week, the four Brantford girls left the old yellow brick church in one piece.  But may we never forget the four Birmingham girls who never got to leave the old red brick church that day in 1963.

N.B.  Here are some other materials about the Birmingham Church Bombing:

1.  The Watsons Go to Birmingham -- 1963 (a novel by Christopher Paul Curtis)
2.  "Birmingham Sunday" (a song recorded by Joan Baez in 1964)
3.  "4 Little Girls" (a documentary by Spike Lee)
4.  Until Justice Rolls:  The Birmingham Church Bombing Case (Frank Sikora)

"Mother dear, may I go downtown
Instead of out to play,
And march the streets of Birmingham
In a Freedom March today?"

"No, baby, no, you may not go,
For the dogs are fierce and wild,
And clubs and hoses, guns and jails
Aren't good for a little child."

"But, mother, I won't be alone.
Other children will go with me,
And march the streets of Birmingham
To make our country free."

"No baby, no, you may not go
For I fear those guns will fire.
But you may go to church instead
And sing in the children's choir."

She has combed and brushed her night-dark hair,
And bathed rose petal sweet,
And drawn white gloves on her small brown hands,
And white shoes on her feet.

The mother smiled to know that her child
Was in the sacred place,
But that smile was the last smile
To come upon her face.

For when she heard the explosion,
Her eyes grew wet and wild.
She raced through the streets of Birmingham
Calling for her child.

She clawed through bits of glass and brick,
Then lifted out a shoe.
"O, here's the shoe my baby wore,
But, baby, where are you?"

Dudley Randall

Photo of four girls killed in Birmingham Church bombing on September 15, 1963 courtesy www.english.illinois/edu.

*First published in 2012.

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