Remembering Civil Rights ‘Rightly’

Too often stories of the struggle for racial equality tell of a neat journey. But it was much more.

Mourners at the funeral for victims of 16th Street Baptist Church bombing (Burton McNeely/Getty Images)
Mourners at the funeral for victims of 16th Street Baptist Church bombing (Burton McNeely/Getty Images)

(The Root) — Fifty years ago tomorrow, the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Ala., was bombed. Four little girls — Addie Mae Collins, Cynthia Wesley, Carole Robertson and Denise McNair — died in the blast.

Violence broke out on the streets in Birmingham, a city with a long history of resistance to Jim Crow that reached further back than the nationally recognized “Birmingham Campaign” led by Martin Luther King Jr. and local activist Fred Shuttlesworth. That afternoon a 16-year old black boy, Johnny Robinson, also in Birmingham, was shot in the back by a white police officer for allegedly throwing rocks with other youngsters at a car filled with whites waving confederate flags. The people in the car were celebrating the church bombing.

Eighteen days earlier, Dr. King delivered his famous “I Have a Dream” speech, and hundreds of thousands of Americans gathered at the Lincoln Memorial to demand freedom and jobs. The Birmingham bombing snatched white America back to reality: The rapture of the march gave way to the brutal violence of the South, revealed the complicity of the federal government with the violence and forced the nation to confront the irrevocable fact that four — no, five, no, six — babies were dead. (Two white Eagle Scouts on their way to the National States Rights Party’s headquarters in the city killed Virgil Ware, a 13-year old black paperboy.)

And here we are today. Just 18 days removed from the commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington. We witnessed the Rev. Al Sharpton’s gathering on Aug. 24 to “Realize the Dream” and President Obama’s keynote address at the official commemoration of the march. One seemed to be a coronation for the next supposed leader of black America. The other yoked more tightly the story of black freedom to an American exceptionalist narrative, and in doing so placed the blame for continued racial inequality squarely on the shoulders of black folk.

How ought we to memorialize the 50th anniversary of the deaths of these children in light of the recent commemorations of the March on Washington? How might our memory of their death wake us up from the sleep-inducing stories of the black freedom struggle that seem to take up so much space in our public conversation today?

We might begin by remembering the commonplace of white violence. We remember the 16th Street church bombing in part because the victims were children in church, a place where we presume safety and sanctuary. But the death of Johnny, the death of Emmett, of Medgar, of Viola, of Goodman, Schwerner and Chaney and countless others all occurred within the years of the movement. Their deaths were extensions of patterns of violence that had defined African-American experience not just in the South, but also in cities like Cicero, Ill., Detroit and Los Angeles. Birmingham itself had just recovered from the bombing of NAACP attorney Arthur Shores only 10 days earlier, and the rage of the city’s black community, not always inclined to turn the other cheek, had exploded in riots.

We might remember that civil rights workers had to confront this violence not simply with the ethical mandate of nonviolent resistance. Constantly mindful of imminent danger, they had to make tactical decisions to protect themselves. Self-defense was not the invention of the black power era. Dr. King understood this. And the young organizers of Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee knew this. It was always a part of the mainstream civil rights movement we remember so neatly.

Black men in Birmingham patrolled the streets at night with guns to protect their neighborhoods from bombers. When the Freedom Riders arrived in Anniston, Ala., in 1961, surrounded by white thugs threatening to kill them, armed activists rescued the nonviolent resisters. Perhaps our national emphasis on nonviolent resistance reveals more about white fantasies and fears than about the moral courage of those who actually lived the philosophy.