Amid national news stories of a government shutdown and the troubled rollout of “Obamacare,” we spent the day immersing ourselves in the events of the early 1960’s. The Birmingham Civil Rights Institute is an amazing and well-crafted collection of stories chronicling the events that we’ve set out to uncover. In addition to the exhibits and galleries, we have been meeting people whose parents and other relatives were involved in the marches, sit-ins and direct actions that were so vital to this movement. For the most part, the people we’re meeting are more than happy to talk about their family histories. Unfortunately, the Institute allows no photography or video recording, so I have no visual reminders of our visit to the Institute.
The most poignant part of the day, by far, was our short visit to the 16th Street Baptist Church.
This church was not only the epicenter of activity during the early 1960’s, it was also the site of one of the most tragic and heart-rending martyrdoms of the period. On September 15, 1963, Denise McNair, Carole Robertson, Cynthia Wesley, and Addie Mae Collins lost their young lives in a bomb blast that tore through the church while they were preparing for Sunday School. They ranged in age from 11 to 14.
Earlier that year, this church was the staging ground for what has become known as the Children’s Crusade when hundreds of children and young people were arrested as they marched for desegregation. It was here in this church that Rev. James Bevel motivated, organized, and prepared the children for their protest marches.
We had information that the church was open for tours from 10:00 to 4:00 Tuesday through Saturday. We took time out from our visit to the Institute to go across the street to the church shortly before 3:00. I was so disappointed to find a sign in the doorway stating that there were no tours today and to find the doors locked.
While I walked around the building taking pictures, E made her way to the church office and asked if it would be possible for us to see the sanctuary. At just the right moment, a church administrator showed up and agreed to let us walk through the sanctuary. This turned out to be the most emotional moment of the trip for me, so far. Standing in the middle of the very sanctuary where all those mass meetings were held, seeing the stained glass window that was a gift to the church after the bombing, thinking about the devastation of the bombing and the mournfulness of the funerals of those little girls, … it all came together to bring me almost to my knees. The presence of God in this place was clearly evident.