(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.
Remembering death and destruction has a way of pulling back the curtain — of forcing us, if we are honest with ourselves, to step outside of the Wizard of Oz-like illusions that make us comfortable.
A Full Story Not Told
For instance, the 1963 March on Washington, a beautiful testament to the manner in which the civil rights movement had transformed the nation, was not a perfect political moment. Faded into the background were the women who had been the primary organizers for the march; Bayard Rustin, a gay man who had been its principal architect; and the labor organizing tradition out of which A. Philip Randolph, the founder of the March on Washington movement, had emerged.
Invisible to most were local activists, many of whom were not in attendance. They were in the bowels of the South engaged in the steady and slow work at the local level of building capacity, resources and leadership to wage battles against Jim Crow in rural areas. Viewers did not see Septima Clark or Esau Jenkins, who created Citizenship Schools across the South that connected freedom fighting to education and civic engagement.
But in many ways we forget how to tell our stories correctly. Indeed, the march in all its glory did not tell the full story. And in that failure it is too easy to misapprehend what the movement meant and what it actually achieved. The shining moment cannot tell the full story if it hides both the hard work and the collective devastation. It can too easily become a corporate brand for a domesticated form of politics.
The 50th anniversary of the march was exactly that. Behind the curtain of the celebration was a complex interplay of media, capital and Capitol Hill. Corporate sponsors spoke. Democratic politicians aligned the march with their political hopes and legislative agendas. And three democratic presidents gave voice to their sense of the aims and purposes and overall significance of the march for the nation. Irony abounds.
MSNBC brilliantly integrated its liberal brand with the commemoration of the march. At one point, MSNBC commentators declared that their fellow employee, the Rev. Al Sharpton (who also orchestrated the Aug. 24 events through his organization, the National Action Network) was now "the preeminent leader of black America" — that he emerged from the march as "peerless." Whatever debate might exist about the veracity of this claim, it is clear we aren't discussing a freedom-movement model of organizing.
When we fixate on who is King's heir, often the measure is scope and size of leadership. Name recognition and platforms become proxies for prophetic advocacy. Nothing else. That sad fact diminishes the story of both the movement and of Dr. King himself.
In fact, in the waning years of his life King consistently challenged his own stature by telling inconvenient truths about war, imperialism and poverty that lost him many friends. The measure of a leader in the tradition of King cannot be status any more than the measure of the movement can be a charismatic leader.
The curtain hides from view the naked self-interest that motivates many who lift up a certain story of the black-freedom struggle. It's painful to peek and see the jockeying, the backstabbing and the selfishness that often parades as prophetic advocacy. One day someone will write the book about "all of Dr. King's men" and those whom they trained. It will not be a pretty story.
The stories we often tell ourselves as a nation about the civil rights movement are rooted in a manic effort to avoid what seems to be undeniable: that we have failed miserably, even when we have progressed a bit, to uproot racism and its insidious effects in this country. Instead, we tell a story about our "progress to a more perfect union" — a kind of national pat on the back to assure ourselves that we are decent, after all, no matter the contrary evidence.
The illusion demands that this be so. Because if we look carefully at what preceded and what followed the March on Washington, the Birmingham bombing, the murder of Dr. King, it is not a triumphalist story of America's commitment to racial justice.
It is a story of brutal racial violence, of white backlash, of deliberate federal and state policies of neglect that have deepened economic misery in urban ghettos and desperate rural regions.
It is a story of debate and argument within black communities about the most effective way to challenge white supremacy, about the limits of nonviolent protest and the power of grass-roots organizing, about sexism and class divisions within the movement, about United States foreign policy and arguments for justice at home and abroad and about the ever-present reality of state surveillance and the imprisonment or death of comrades.
Much of this is entirely absent in the prevailing accounts of the civil rights movement. They do not include the role of uprisings (disparagingly called riots) in ensuring federal and state public-sector employment and fair-housing laws. Nor do they include the role of the ensuing white flight and of the enduring effects of Reaganism in undoing those initiatives. They do not include the role of black power in integrating the nation's universities, or the failure of the courts to ensure that the education leading up to university would actually be equal as well as desegregated.
These accounts do not include the failure of the nation to stem the tide of police misconduct against black and brown communities, drawing a straight line from the protests against police brutality then and those against stop and frisk now. President Obama's claim of excuse-making for criminality in the black community threatens to dismiss what is an all-too-plain story of under-protection and over-punishment faced by African Americans and Latinos in the U.S.
Similarly, the work of the national welfare-rights movement, led by a multiracial group of poor women who fought for inclusion into U.S. civil society at all levels, ought not be diminished to an account of people who wanted government handouts and who used poverty as an excuse. That is insulting. Ruby Duncan and her compatriots worked hard for a voice that would not subject them to the kinds of stereotypes that made the devastating welfare reform enacted under President Clinton so easy to pass and predatory economic institutions so easy to let off the hook today.
All too often how we tell the story of the civil rights movement keeps from view aspects of our past that call into question our national self-conception. When we see images of fire hoses and water tanks turned on peaceful children in Birmingham in 1963, there is a sense that the wrongness of the action has to be isolated as an aberration of our true nature as a country. We tell ourselves, "Bull Connor was evil," "those people aren't us — anymore." The events are relegated to a distant past that is only recalled to reaffirm our current moral standing.
Some events have to be banished to the shadows altogether. We know they happened. We just refuse to recall them collectively. The T-shirts that proclaim that Obama is the realization of Dr. King's dream seem to conveniently ignore the fact that King consistently brought pressure to bear on lawmakers to fulfill their responsibility to Americans who were darker and disfavored. Nor do they acknowledge how King was reviled for protesting war-making and interventionism of the very sort for which Obama seeks authority. These moments go publicly unrecalled and warp King into our own image for the sake of political complacency and comfort.
This work of collective forgetting and its silences conspire with injustice. They truncate the story of how we arrived at our current moment: absolving people along the way and shifting the blame from one set of shoulders to another.
President Obama's address on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial did just that. The world changed not simply because some marched but because many died, rebelled, organized, sacrificed and challenged the way things were ordered by the powerful. They challenged themselves to think beyond the frames of what the powerful determined was politic, to embrace visions beyond those presented by leaders appointed by the powerful, to name their own.
So, we commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Birmingham bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church and the deaths of those beautiful, brilliant black children by remembering rightly — that is, more fully and more truthfully — in order to garner the moral courage to follow in the footsteps of those who dared to imagine a new America and to challenge the evils of our day.
Eddie S. Glaude Jr. is the William S. Tod Professor of Religion and African American Studies as well as the chair of the Center for African American Studies at Princeton University. Follow him on Twitter.
Imani Perry is a professor in the Center for African American Studies at Princeton University. She is the author of More Beautiful and More Terrible: The Embrace and Transcendence of Racial Inequality in the United States and Prophets of the Hood: Politics and Poetics in Hip Hop and editor of the Barnes and Nobles Classics Edition of Narrative of Sojourner Truth. Follow her on Twitter.