On this Sunday, I visited the 16th Street Baptist Church, where Addie Mae Collins, 14. Denise McNair, 11; Carole Robertson, 14; and Cynthia Wesley were struck down by hatred and racism. On September 15, 1963, Ku Klux Klan bombers killed four young girls and wounded more than two dozen other people in a church on Sunday morning. Their deaths came just a few weeks after Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. led the March on Washington and gave his famous “I have a dream” speech.
I’m traveling with the Chicago Children’s Choir, as they celebrate their 50th anniversary with a concert tour of civil rights sites in the South. It is a privilege to spend time with these young people and a joy to hear their music. And I am on pilgrimage, walking on sacred ground, standing in the places I could only watch on television and pray over as a young teenager on a Minnesota farm in the early 1960s.
Today in the 16th Street Baptist Church, the choir sang “Birmingham Sunday.”
On Birmingham Sunday a noise shook the ground.
And people all over the earth turned around.
For no one recalled a more cowardly sound.
And the choirs kept singing of Freedom.
I know we were standing on sacred ground. This is the very church where Denise and Addie and Carole and Cynthia prayed and sang and went to Sunday school. This is the very church where, on Monday night after Monday night, brave people gathered from 1958 onward to plan and work and organize to win freedom and justice and equal rights. I stood with members of the congregation and guests and two choirs and we all linked arms and sang “We Shall Overcome” in the same church where Dr. Martin Luther King and Dr. Ralph Abernathy and Dr. Fred Shuttlesworth sang the same anthem.
This morning I talked with elders in Birmingham. Some of them were not much older than me, but we are the elders now. They marched and they shrugged off threats and they persevered in the civil rights movement. It’s better now, they said, but not all better.
The world is better now, they said, because Birmingham is integrated and so is the whole country. It’s not better because integration has not ended prejudice or discrimination—that will take generations, one told me. He also said that he saw the same divisions, setting one race against another, playing out again as politicians try to turn African Americans against immigrants, black against brown, inciting and pandering to prejudices.
Another way in which it is not all better is that the children and grandchildren do not feel the same things we felt. “The same things” does not signify the pain and the fear and the loss of so many good people. “The same things” signifies the commitment to struggle for a justice, the joy in comradeship in the struggle, the faith that a better world is possible and that it is our job and our privilege to build it.
I hope that this tour gives at least some of our children a taste of the past, a taste of the struggle for justice and the joy that is in it, a taste of the faith and the hope that are needed to join in that still-vital struggle for peace and freedom and justice.
The Sunday has come and the Sunday has gone.
And I can’t do much more than to sing you a song.
I’ll sing it so softly, it’ll do no one wrong.
And the choirs keep singing of Freedom.
[The song, “Birmingham Sunday,” was written by Richard Fariña]