While in Alabama a few weeks ago, I went to the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute with one of the Benedictine Sisters, Sr. Madeline. Notice, the building is not called a museum although it chronicles the Civil Rights struggle through pictures, film, and artifacts. It’s called an institute since it links the struggle for equality in Birmingham to movements for equality throughout the world. I was deeply moved by my time there, and I’d like to share a few thoughts with you.
When we got there we parked our car on the street right next to the 16th Street Baptist Church where, on September 15, 1963, a bomb exploded killing four young Black girls and injuring 22 others. I got chills as I got out of the car a few feet from where the bomb went off. The event, as tragic as it was, became a turning point for the Civil Rights Movement, eventually leading to the passage of the Civil Rights Act signed by President Johnson on July 2, 1964. Diagonal to the church is a park with beautiful sculptures of the four girls: Addie (14), Cynthia (14), Carole (14), and Denise (11).
Our self-guided tour began with the “Barriers Gallery” which depicts the contrast between the life of Whites and Blacks in Birmingham from 1920 to 1954: separate water fountains, separate schools, separate neighborhoods, and separate employment opportunities. The remaining galleries took us through 1955 to 1962, highlighting the various confrontations of the movement.
One part has the actual door from the jail cell where Martin Luther King, Jr., was incarcerated when he came to Birmingham to support the non-violent demonstrations. On the wall is a letter addressed to him from the clergymen of the churches in Birmingham calling his actions “unwise and untimely.” They ask King to stop the demonstrations and to negotiate instead. The signatures include clergy of various Christian Churches (including the Catholic Bishop) and a Rabbi. Sister Madeline informed me that later that Catholic Bishop publicly repented for having signed that letter and became very active in the Civil Rights Movement.
When I got home I went online and read King’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” his reply to those clergymen. In it he answers their arguments one by one. He notes that they deplore the demonstrations but not the unjust conditions that led to the
demonstrations. He states he cannot follow their advice “to wait,” saying that “wait” has almost always meant “never.”
Through pictures, film clips, and life-size sculptures, the Institute chronicles the Montgomery Bus Boycott, the Bus Ride to Freedom, the struggle for the right to vote, and The March on Washington. At the end of our tour, I asked myself, “Where was I when all of this was going on?”
In the 50’s and early 60’s I was on that small farm in Willoughby Hills, Ohio, seemingly far removed from the violence in Birmingham, Montgomery, and Jackson. But our area too had injustices with regard to race—though not as overt as those in the South. I do remember seeing pictures on TV of dogs and fire hoses being used on demonstrators and I was appalled that this was happening in my country. And I was amazed at the courage of those “freedom riders” and those first Black students being escorted by the National Guard into those previously White schools past angry mobs shouting all kinds of terrible things at them.
On September 15, 1963, the day of the bombing of that Baptist Church, I was already a first-year novice. That day was also my first nameday celebration as a nun, the feast of Our Lady of Sorrows. Back in those days, we novices were totally cut off from all newspapers, radio, and TV so I probably didn’t learn of this incident until later.
My visit to the Civil Rights Institute made me realize just how bad things were for non-Whites in my own country. It made me appreciate those individuals—both Blacks and Whites—who risked their lives through non-violent demonstrations to win equal rights for citizens who were being denied them. It also made me more aware of some of the movements for human rights in our own day—both in the US. and beyond. I ask myself, what am I doing about these issues: racism, poverty, war, ecology, abortion, immigration reform, women’s rights, capital punishment, human trafficking?
I realize some of you are too young to remember the Civil Rights movement. But if you are old enough to remember, what do you remember about these events while they were taking place?
As we Americans celebrate Independence Day on July 4th, it is good for us to give thanks for the freedoms we already have and for the many individuals who secured these freedoms for us. It is also good for us to ask God to give us the grace to work tirelessly to insure these same freedoms for others.
Any thoughts about all of this?