The doors of Birmingham, Alamaba’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 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.
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. Last Sunday, Price preached a sermon titled “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.
Price usually preaches to a congregation of about 500 people, with visitors often mingled among the worshippers.
“Visitors usually come because of history, but the regular worshippers come because they want to hear a word from the Lord,” Price said.
The church will be packed full of visitors this Sunday and among the anticipated visitors are U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder, members of Congress and leaders from throughout the city and around the country.
At 10:22 a.m., a memorial wreath will be laid near the point where a bomb ripped through the women’s restroom, killing Addie Mae Collins, Cynthia Wesley, Denise McNair and Carole Robertson. The families of the girls received the Congressional Gold Medal on Tuesday.
The four girls were not the only youths to lose their lives to violence in the Birmingham area on Sept. 15, 1963. Two Eagle Scouts shot and killed 13-year-old Virgil Ware as he rode on the handlebars of his brother’s bicycle, just west of the city.
Also on that day, Johnny Robinson, a 16-year-old, was gunned down by a white police officer as he and other youths ran in an alley near downtown.
“We remember the four girls, and the two boys,” Price said.
Sixteenth Street Baptist had a rich history and a place of prominence in the community even before the bombing, said Horace Huntley, an African-American historian and author of Black Workers’ Struggle for Equality in Birmingham.
The Rev. William Reuben Pettiford, pastor of the church in 1890, founded the Penny Savings Bank, which was the first black-owned bank in Alabama, said Huntley. “Sixteeth Street Baptist was significant in the city’s economic life and in its spiritual life. It was one of the churches where you could find Birmingham’s black middle class,” he said.
The church’s parking lot still reflects the middle class and a cross-section of America. Cadillacs, imported cars and SUVs bear allegiance to Alabama A&M, Miles College, the University of Alabama, Auburn University, Tennessee State University and Stillman College.
The bombing of 16th Street Baptist Church touched almost every segment of life in Birmingham, even in faraway places. The people of Wales responded by raising funds to replace the glass windows in the church of a place where most had never visited. Artist John Petts in Llansteffan, Carmarthenshire, offered to create and install the window. The editor of the Western Mail started a campaign to raise the money for the window. Today that window can be viewed best from the church balcony. It depicts a black Jesus beneath a rainbow of racial unity. The right arm pushes away hatred and injustice. The left offers forgiveness.
Kathleen Bunton, a longtime member of the church and coordinator of the Tour Ministry, said forgiveness is an important lesson shared with visitors to the church.
Bunton was not a member of the church in 1963, but she was in Birmingham on the day of the bombing. She heard the blast. “Everyone heard it. The sound was overwhelming,” she said. “When we heard on the television what happened, we went to the church.”
In her more than 15 years as a tour guide at the church, she and the tour team have welcomed visitors from all 50 states and from as far away as Australia.
“People often ask if we are angry or bitter. They want to know how we still deal with the tragedy today,” said Bunton, a retired social studies teacher. “We tell them about the love of Jesus.”
Candie Price, the wife of the Rev. Price and a public relations manager, puts it like this: “We tell history and we tell His story.”
The church has enhanced its website and is using social media to spread the word about activities to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the bombing, as well as ministry opportunities, worship services and Bible study.
The four little girls had just left Sunday school class and were preparing for youth worship. They were in a church restroom when the bomb blast ripped through the east side of the church at 10:22 a.m.
There also will be a special Sunday school lesson as part of Sunday’s commemoration, Price said.
“We will be teaching from the topic ‘A Love That Forgives.’ “