16th Street Baptist Church: Still Standing

It's not all about black and white at the sanctuary where four little girls were killed 50 years ago.

Memorial site for the four victims of the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing (Sherrel Denise Stewart)
Memorial site for the four victims of the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing (Sherrel Denise Stewart)

(The Root) — The doors of Birmingham, Ala.’s 16th Street Baptist Church are open seven days a week, and almost every day, visitors from across the country and around the world come to see the place where a bomb killed four little girls Sept. 15, 1963, at the height of the struggle for civil rights in the city.

From the black-and-white images of shattered windows, crumpled bricks and grieving families, the world saw the depth of racial hatred in what was then called the America’s most segregated city. At the time, blacks in Birmingham were fighting in the courts and marching in the streets for desegregated schools and equal access to public places. They were standing up so that they could sit at any table in lunch counters, regardless of the color of their skin.

Sixteenth Street Baptist Church, on the western edge of the downtown business district, was the place where marchers often gathered to get instruction and inspiration from leaders such as the Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth and Martin Luther King Jr.

Fifty years later, the church still stands, but it reflects a different image, said the Rev. Arthur Price, pastor of the church. “Everything here is not all black and white,” he said. “Through this terrible tragedy, God transformed this city from a bitter place to a better place.

“Birmingham has come a long way, but we still have work to do,” Price added.

The Church Today

Once a week, the church networks with local courts to host a mentoring program for “deadbeat dads.” The program helps the men to change their lives and become the kind of supporters their families need. There’s also a program to mentor people struggling with addiction to drugs and alcohol.

“We realize that a lot of people come to visit here because of the history, but we’re a Bible-centric church,” said Price. “Our goal is to save the lost and show the love of Jesus Christ. Regardless of who is here, we stay focused on our mission.”

Price, a native of Philadelphia, came to 16th Street Baptist 11 years ago after pastoring in Buffalo, N.Y. He had heard about the bombing that killed the four little girls but had not been exposed to much of the city’s civil rights history until he and his family arrived in 2002. 

“I didn’t come here because of the history. I came because of the calling,” Price said. “I came because of the need.”

Indeed, the church can take on the feel of a monument to history. Sunday, Price preached a sermon entitled “From Trouble to Triumph,” while a crew from PBS filmed the service for a broadcast segment. Outside of the church, visitors to the Birmingham Civil Rights District snapped photos.