Returning to the Roots of the Civil Rights Tour: Day 5

For previous posts in this series click here.

We spent half of Day 5 in Montgomery and the other half in Birmingham.  The tour is now more than half over.

Yesterday morning we spent some time at the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Civil Rights Memorial Center.  The museum interprets a memorial commemorating those who died of hate crimes during the Civil Rights Movement.  Here is a description of the monument:

A circular black granite table records the names of the martyrs and chronicles the history of the movement in lines that radiate like the hands of a clock. Water emerges from the table’s center and flows evenly across the top. On a curved black granite wall behind the table is engraved Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s well-known paraphrase of Amos 5:24 – We will not be satisfied until justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream.

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Caroline at the Civil Rights Memorial

We then headed over to the Rosa Parks Museum on the campus of Troy University.  This museum tells the story of the Montgomery Bus Boycott and contains one of two original city buses.

After lunch we drove to Birmingham and visited the 16th Street Baptist Church, the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute, and Kelly Ingram Park.

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Entrance to Kelly Ingram Park: King, Abernathy, and Shuttlesworth

In the evening we had a pizza party with two women associated with the Civil Rights Movement in Birmingham.  Carolyn Maull McKinstry was inside the 16th Street Baptist Church on Sunday, September 15, 1963 when the Ku Klux Klan bombed the church, killing four little girls.  McKinstry was fifteen years old when the bombing occurred.

Lisa McNair is the younger sister of Denise McNair, one of the girls killed during the bombing. (Lisa never met Denise. She was born sixteen months after her death).  Both McKinstry and McNair talked about the events surrounding the bombing, the aftermath, of the bombing, and what we can learn from this tragic moment as we reflect on how to be people who practice reconciliation.  (Check out McKinstry’s book While the World Watched.  She graciously signed our copy).

McKinstry remembers attending the first planning meeting of the Birmingham Children’s Crusade.  She recalls sitting with her friends as they listened to Fred Shuttlesworth, Ralph Abernathy, Andrew Young, Jesse Jackson, James Bevel, and Martin Luther King teach them how to behave on the march and prepare them for what they might expect from the Birmingham police under the direction of Bull Connor.   On May 2, 1963, McKinstry and the children of Birmingham left school and marched directly toward Connor’s water hoses, white tank, and attack dogs.  (She said that the leaders of the movement had not prepared them for the hoses.  This was a complete surprise).  5000 of McKinstry’s fellow child marchers went to jail.

Birmingham 3The bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church occurred about four months after the Birmingham Children’s Crusade.  The bombing took place on “Youth Day” at the church, a special Sunday in which the young people ran the service.  McKinstry helped to organize the 1963 Youth Day.  The sermon (which no one got to hear that morning )came from Luke 23:34 and was titled “A Love That Forgives.”  The bomb exploded at 10:22 (they know this because the clock stopped).  There were 75 students in Sunday School that morning. Addie May Collins, Cynthia Wesley, Carole Robertson, and Carol Denise McNair were killed.

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16th Avenue Baptist Church, Birmingham, Alabama

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Monument to the 4 girls killed during the bombing of 16th Avenue Baptist Church (Kelly Ingram Park)

Lisa McNair talked openly about what it was like to grow up as the sister of Denise McNair. Lisa described her first memory: “my sister was killed by white people because they hated Black people.”  As she grew up in Birmingham she always worried that the man who killed her sister was out there somewhere.  McNair said that few of those who experienced the bombing talked much about it until the 25th anniversary in 1988 and then again at the release of Spike Lee’s documentary 4 Little Girls in 1997.  These events helped the families and the larger community begin to share their emotions.

What struck me the most about McKinstry and McNair was how their Christian faith has enabled them to deal with this tragedy.  McKinstry has spent most of her life trying to make sense of what happened when she was fourteen years old.  Today she travels the country speaking about forgiveness and reconciliation.  McNair is a photographer and speaker who attends a 6000-member white Southern Baptist Church in Birmingham.

Both women refuse to let hate and anger control their lives.  It would be natural for these men and women to respond with hate and anger, and I am sure they have had moments when they have been tempted to act and think in this way.   But they ultimately choose not to dwell in anger.  Instead they make every effort to practice what Reinhold Niebuhr once called the “spiritual discipline against resentment.” McKinstry and McNair made it clear that they have drawn heavily from the spiritual resources of their faith to provide them with the strength to move forward.

Today we are traveling to Memphis.  Stay tuned.