BIRMINGHAM—The 16th Street Baptist Church is your quintessential church. It’s a stout building with real downtown character. Red clay brick. Ornate stained glass. The whole enchilada.
There are homeless men seated on the curb. One man is asking people for money. He zeroes in on me.
He’s smoking a cigarette while wearing a medical mask at the same time. Which is impressive.
“You wanna know more about this church?” he asks.
His old T-shirt is ratty and stained. His skin is aged. He offers to tell me the church’s story in exchange for a few bucks. A “donation,” he calls it.
He pockets the money and launches into a spiel.
“This structure was designed in the turn of the century by a dude named Wallace Rayfield.” He pushes his mask aside and lights another bent Camel.
Rayfield was American history’s second black architect. He was formally educated in Columbia University, and in 1899 he was a unique treasure. A lot of people consider this building to be one of his masterstrokes.
He designed buildings all over the U.S., there are nearly ten in Birmingham alone. He built others in New York, West Virginia, Arkansas, South Carolina, Georgia, Chicago, Pensacola, and one located in the little crossroads of Milton, Florida.
His creations are works of art in any town. Though you have to know where to look for them. Rayfield’s buildings recede into a cityscape like they’ve always been there.
“This church congregation is old, dude,” the man says. “Goes way back in time.”
This church was founded in 1873, it was the first organized black congregation in Birmingham. Some very well-known American men and women have spoken from this pulpit. People you’ve heard of, like W.E.B. Du Bois, and Martin Luther King Jr.
The old man goes on, “The last time Doctor King came here, this place was, like, standing room only. And it was hot, brother. The only air conditioner back then was your mama’s right hand.”
This church, however, did not always have things so quaint. There is a headstone in the back of the building marking the reason why.
The year was 1963. On a midsummer day, a lot like today, things started off pretty normal. Downstairs some young church members were making preparations for the upcoming “Youth Day.”
Youth Day was probably one of those things lots of churches still do. Fill the building with kids, sing your guts out, play games, eat some marvelous church-lady food. Repeat.
That morning there were some strangers slinking around the building near the basement. But nobody paid much attention to them. Or maybe nobody even saw the three white men.
“This is where the explosions happened,” the man says, patting the stone wall. “Right here.”
The men planted 19 sticks of dynamite beneath the stairs. The explosion happened at 10:22 a.m. It sounded like a freight train colliding with another freight train.
There was screaming. Wailing. Weeping. Smoke. Dust. The blast killed four beautiful black girls and injured twenty-two others.
“Youth Day,” he says again. “They killed them little girls right before Youth Day.”
It was a lifetime ago. The men responsible for this racial horror will not get their names in this column. But the names of the four girls were Denise McNair, Cynthia Wesley, Carole Robertson, and Addie Mae Collins.
I love the name Addie Mae. She was 14 years old.
The funeral for those children was a national event. More than 8,000 showed up on 16th Street to grieve their loss. And Dr. Martin Luther King gave their eulogy. To a hell-battered Birmingham he spoke words that were gentle and humble at heart.
I can only imagine how hard it was for King, who was himself a father of four. Only one month earlier, he had delivered his famous “I Have a Dream” speech on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial to 250,000 people who all had the same dream. And now this. It must have been quite a day.
The man takes me to the church steps. Together we stand upon them. An older black man, smoking a cigarette, standing beside me.
“This is holy ground,” he says.
And he’s absolutely right. I feel it, too. I stand on these steps and feel something profound. Something so inexplicably good, and hopeful, and joyous. I also feel my eyes getting wet.
And in this horrible time of pandemics, and unrest, and depression, and hatred, the warmth from this place is like salve to me.
Because no matter how bad this world gets, and no matter how devoid of peace, you can almost hear the words from King’s eulogy, leaping from these very bricks.
Here is some of that eulogy:
“Life is hard. At times as hard as crucible steel. It has its bleak and difficult moments. Like the ever-flowing waters of the river, life has its moments of drought, and its moments of flood. Like the ever-changing cycle of the seasons, life has the soothing warmth of its summers and the piercing chill of its winters.
“And if one will hold on, he will discover that God walks with him, and that God is able to lift you from the fatigue of despair to the buoyancy of hope, and transform dark and desolate valleys into sunlit paths of inner peace.
“And so today, you do not walk alone.”
The old man crushes out his cigarette. “Thanks for helping a man when he’s down, brother,” he says before walking away.
I was going to tell him the same thing.