Fifty Years After Bombing, Birmingham is Resurrected

Once home to one of America's darkest moments, an Alabama city shows just how far it has come

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Horace Cort / AP

It was 10:22 on the morning of Sunday, Sept. 15, 1963, and the sound of the dynamite exploding at the 16th Street Baptist Church roared across Birmingham. Fourteen-year-old William Bell was getting ready for church when he heard the blast--from three miles away. Bell's father rushed his wife and children into the family car and drove to the church, where they found chaos and tragedy.

Four young girls had been massacred by a white supremacist's bomb: Denise McNair, 11; Carol Robertson, 14; Addie Mae Collins, 14; and Cynthia Wesley, 14. "Every individual in this town knew at least one of the girls or knew their families," Bell says. "Carol Robertson is a cousin of mine ... Denise McNair went to school with my brother. Her mother taught my brother. You felt it, the pain of it."

This September, William Bell, now the mayor of Birmingham (and the fourth African American to hold the office) will preside over the commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the bombing. The attack on the 16th Street Baptist Church was an act of terrorism that stands as one of the great turning points in American history. Together with the March on Washington in August, the September murder of the four little girls opened the way for Lyndon Johnson's successful push for civil rights legislation in 1964, in the aftermath of the November assassination of President Kennedy.

The mechanics of memory are particularly fraught in the American South, where so much history unfolded the day before yesterday. There is a natural human tendency to want to shut the door on a painful past. When we're being totally honest with ourselves, however, we know that William Faulkner was right when he observed, in Requiem for a Nun, that the past is never dead; it isn't even past.

Birmingham is marking the 50th anniversary of 1963 forthrightly, acknowledging the city's sins but asking for the nation and the world to see the city in full--not just for what it was then but also for what it is now. "My thought all along is be exactly who you are," says Bell. "The images are always about the dogs and the hoses. And yes, that's who we were, but we've come out of that."

What Birmingham is now is a striving and surprisingly resilient Southern city trying to make its way economically and culturally. The Jackie Robinson movie 42 was filmed in Birmingham, which boasts a new minor-league ballpark for the Southern League's Birmingham Barons. Mercedes and Honda have opened plants in Alabama. Mayor Bell spends more time talking up investments in the University of Alabama at Birmingham's medical-research center than he does speaking on racial issues.

That would have been largely unimaginable in the early 1960s. "There is a great deal of frustration and despair and confusion in the Negro community," King told President Kennedy shortly after the bombing. "And there is a feeling of being alone and not being protected. If you walk the street, you aren't safe. If you stay at home, you aren't safe--there's a danger of a bomb. If you're in church now, it isn't safe. So the Negro feels that everywhere he goes, or if he remains stationary, he's in danger of some physical violence."

For Mayor Bell--and for Birmingham, and for the country--the movement and its martyrs changed everything. "Their sacrifice made my life possible, made my being the mayor of Birmingham possible," Bell says. Out of terror came hope.

King preached at the funeral for three of the four victims in September 1963. "God still has a way of wringing good out of evil," he said. "And history has proven over and over again that unmerited suffering is redemptive. The innocent blood of these little girls may well serve as a redemptive force that will bring new light to this dark city." And so it has.

The face of Jesus was blown out of one of the 16th Street Baptist Church's windows during the attack, an eerie and enduring symbol of a world where hate--at least in the moment of the bombing--overshadowed love. Today, a memorial window from the people of Wales depicts a crucified Jesus and a quotation from Matthew 25: "Inasmuch as ye have done it unto the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me."

The Jesus in the window is a black man, arms outstretched, reaching, it seems, to a future beyond the blood and the bombs--a future that is far closer to reality now than appeared possible 50 Septembers ago.