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Monday, January 16, 2012

MLK, Jr: Chaos or Community?

I can not think of Martin Luther King, Jr., without thinking of "I have a Dream" speech. It was a moving, riveting speech - one that will continue to cry "Justice" and "Freedom" from the dusty pages of the history books that line the library shelves across this country and around the world.

I can not think of that speech, however, without thinking of what happened, a little over two weeks later, in the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama.

It was Youth Sunday and nearly thirty young Black children were sitting in the basement, waiting to be called upstairs for a special service after the sermon.  There were estimated to be about 400 people in church that morning.

The title of that sermon was "The Love That Forgives" - something that would, within the next few minutes of impending calamity and tragedy that followed a heinous crime, appear poignant, ironic or prophetic - or, all three.

The evening before the morning service a group of Klansmen placed over one hundred sticks of dynamite outside the church building. At about 10:22 a.m., the explosives detonated.

Four little girls were killed in the blast and dozens sustained serious injury. Two more youths were shot and killed in the rioting later that night.

The Washington Post reported that:
"Dozens of survivors, their faces dripping blood from the glass that flew out of the church's stained glass windows, staggered around the building in a cloud of white dust raised by the explosion. The blast crushed two nearby cars like toys and blew out windows blocks away.

Negroes stoned cars in other sections of Birmingham and police exchanged shots with a Negro firing wild shotgun blasts two blocks from the church. It took officers two hours to disperse the screaming, surging crowd of 2,000 Negroes who ran to the church at the sound of the blast.

At least 20 persons were hurt badly enough by the blast to be treated at hospitals. Many more, cut and bruised by flying debris, were treated privately.

Meanwhile, NAACP Executive Secretary Roy Wilkins wired President Kennedy that unless the Federal Government offers more than "picayune and piecemeal aid against this type of bestiality" Negroes will "employ such methods as our desperation may dictate in defense of the lives of our people."

Reinforced police units patrolled the city and 500 battle-dressed National Guardsmen stood by at an armory.

City police shot a 16-year-old Negro (Johnny Robinson) to death when he refused to heed their commands to halt after they caught him stoning cars. A 13-year-old Negro boy (Virgil Ware) was shot and killed as he rode his bicycle in a suburban area north of the city."
The impact of the blast destroyed the rear wall and steps of the structure, and blew out all but one of the stained glass windows.

The Washington Post - 1963
The sole surviving window frame featured a stained glass rendering of Jesus leading children, an image all the more poignant given that it was “Youth Day” at the church.

While the frame and structure of the window miraculously survived, the window itself sustained powerful symbolic damage: the face of Jesus had been blown off.

In a gruesome parallel, one of the girls had been decapitated by bricks which fell into the basement room where the children had been.

In his recently published book, "Through the Storm, Through the Night: A History of African American Christianity," author Paul Harvey talks about the eulogy given in late September, 1963, by Dr. King at the funeral of those four little girls.
King suggested that the explosion that took the head of Jesus and the head of one of the girls also would destroy the career of white politicians who had poisoned their constituents with the stale rhetoric of racism. Moreover, it condemned apathetic or fearful black southerners who had stayed on the sidelines during the freedom struggle. Comprehending the death of the four girls meant understanding the entire system, the way of life, which had produced those who had murdered them, and a renewed commitment to make the American dream real for those who had never experienced it.
Carole Boston Weatherford was celebrating her 10th birthday that morning of September 15, 1963. In her book, "Birmingham, 1963" she writes of the more personal components of that day.
The day I turned ten
I rehearsed my Youth Day solo in the full-length mirror.
This little light of mine, I’m gonna let it shine.

But Mama allowed my my first sip of coffee
And Daddy twirled me around the kitchen
In my patent-leather cha-cha heels.

The day I turned ten
Someone tucked a bundle of dynamite
Under the church steps, then lit the fuse of hate.

10:22 a.m. The clock stopped, and Jesus’ face
Was blown out of the only stained-glass window
Left standing—the one where He stands at the door.
The Lord is my shepherd, said the pastor on a megaphone.
I am haunted this day when we pause to remember the life and legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., by his dream and the nightmare of four little girls in Birmingham, Alabama.

I think of that stained glass window. The only one left standing after the blast.  The one with the face of Jesus blown off.

It's one way for me to put together the words of Dr. King and the poetry of one of the little girls who was there, in the basement of that church.

I visited the 16th Street Baptist Church a few years ago when I was in Birmingham to do a presentation for the Integrity Chapter there.

The window has been restored and resides on the side of the church which had been destroyed by the blast.

As I recall from my tour there, the folks at the church claim that only the eyes of Jesus were blown out.

This, according to my guide - and, admittedly, my memory - was considered highly symbolic because it represented to that faith community that the vision of the Civil Rights Movement had been distorted, the body remained intact.

Somewhere, in the midst of the memory of the nightmare and the vision of Martin's dream, lies the future of the Civil Rights Movement.

Why is that important to me? Well, I'm just a White girl trying to make a difference.

It's important to me because I know that my future - and the future of this country - is directly linked to the future of the Civil Rights Movement.

Dr. King was right. Comprehending the death of the four girls means understanding the entire system, the way of life, which had produced those who had murdered them, and a renewed commitment to make the American dream real for those who had never experienced it.

That includes the dreams of little girls in patent leather cha-cha heels and little boys with stained brown leather baseball gloves - young people of all races and ethnicities - to go on to celebrate future birthdays with all the hopes and dreams that are the bedrock of The American Dream of "freedom and justice for all".

It means comprehending the systemic nature of prejudice and oppression - how it produces and perpetuates the systems of poverty and economic enslavement.

Dr. King's last book was entitled, "Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community?" which contains his speech to the Southern Christian Leadership Conference in 1967. Dr. King commented on the economy and how the poor were viewed:
“Now we realize that dislocations in the market operations of our economy and the prevalence of discrimination thrust people into idleness and bind them in constant or frequent unemployment against their will. Today the poor are less often dismissed, I hope, from our consciences by being branded as inferior or incompetent."
Our goal, our dream - King's Dream, the American Dream - is for all Americans to work together to change the systemic nature of prejudice and oppression as the way to end the racial and economic injustices that are killing us all.

There is another stained glass window in the 16th Street Baptist Church, as well. It sits in the front of the church and was a gift from the people of Wales.

It depicts a black man, seemingly in a crucifix shape, with one hand turned away and one hand open to the sky. The turned hand is pushing away prejudice, hate, and discrimination while the open hand represents repentance and forgiveness. The rainbow behind his head shows the harmony and peace that can be achieved with people of all races, ethnicities and creeds.

The face of Jesus was permanently altered the day the 16th Street Baptist Church was bombed.

On this day, when we remember the life and legacy of the Rev'd Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., may our vision of The Beloved Community of Jesus be renewed and revitalized.

Dr. King reminded us that  "we are tied together in the single garment of destiny, caught in an inescapable network of mutuality."

We have a choice: Chaos or Community.

We have, as well, the memory of Dr. King and those four little girls in Birmingham to inform the choices we make.

The question is: Will we find the "Love That Forgives" - in ourselves and others - so that we may choose to live in Christ's Beloved Community?


Philomena Ewing said...

Many thanks for a fantastic post. I was not aware of this incident and you have woven Martin Luther King's speech around the past and the future so well.
So much remains to be done i this world but this post reminds me that there is always hope and that we must continue to struggle for human rights wherever and whenever they are defaced.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Thanks, Philomena. It's really what Dr. King talked about when he said, "we are tied together in the single garment of destiny, caught in an inescapable network of mutuality."

Matthew said...

I remember Angela Davis once speaking about this incident. She grew up in Birmingham and knew the girls. She was once asked, "When did you become an activist?" She thought about it for a while and first said, the bombing of the 16th street Baptist Church, and then paused, and said, No, ...... that her parents taught her from the time she was born that she had to be an activist or else she could not affirm her own humanity.

And, soooooooo . . . I stare into that prism, and think of the many glbt youth who are not taught to affirm their own humanity in their homes. Lots more work in the vineyard left to do .........

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

I don't think the work will ever really be done. Not until all the systems change.

Hmmm.... something about hell freezing over comes to mind.

Until then, time to roll up our sleeves and put on the work boots