On September 15, 1963 at 10:20 AM a small group of young black children were gathering inside of the 16th street Baptist church in Birmingham, Alabama. Sunday school had already ended and the children were busy getting into their choir robes and preparing for service. The sermon scheduled for later that day was entitled “The Love that Forgives.”
At 10:22 AM — a full box of dynamite erupted from under the front steps of the church near the basement. More than twenty people were injured. Four children — Addie Mae Collins, Cynthia Wesley, Carole Robertson and Denise McNair were killed. The sermon was never given.
A few days later, three of the children were laid to rest. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr gave the eulogy. And in his words, we find a message that resonates as powerfully today as it did some 51 years ago. In particular, he spoke to the lessons we can all learn from their deaths (emphasis added).
…[These children] have something to say to each of us in their death. They have something to say to every minister of the gospel who has remained silent behind the safe security of stained-glass windows. They have something to say to every politician who has fed his constituents with the stale bread of hatred and the spoiled meat of racism. They have something to say to a federal government that has compromised with the undemocratic practices of southern Dixiecrats and the blatant hypocrisy of right-wing northern Republicans. They have something to say to every Negro who has passively accepted the evil system of segregation and who has stood on the sidelines in a mighty struggle for justice. They say to each of us, black and white alike, that we must substitute courage for caution. They say to us that we must be concerned not merely about who murdered them, but about the system, the way of life, the philosophy which produced the murderers. Their death says to us that we must work passionately and unrelentingly for the realization of the American dream.
Much has changed over the past 51 years. By many measures we are much better off now than we were on that overcast Sunday when four children fell victim to the hatred and fear of their fellow American citizens.
But to say we’ve come far enough would be a lie.
That system which Dr. King spoke about, that way of life and that philosophy — it still lives today. It hangs on in the corners of our minds and feeds our prejudice and misconceptions. It lingers in the public policies that govern and guide us. It pulls us apart and separates us from one anotherboth physically and spiritually. It threatens the very future of this country.
Since the mangled and battered bodies of those four little girls were pulled from the rubble of the Birmingham church, countless others have suffered under the same system of hate and fear. From dilapidated schools and police brutality to income and wealth inequality — this system penetrates all aspects of our lives. But on this day, let us not forget what the ultimate price can be for our adherence to this dangerous philosophy.
You can read King’s full eulogy here.