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.
Annie - August 13, 2020 6:53 am
Thank you for this and yes my eyes teared up..these are trying times and only God will make a difference. Jesus is coming back sooner than later. Some say he’s already here. God bless you.
Christina - August 13, 2020 7:01 am
Amen! Thankful we are in this together. Thanks Sean for keep sharing the rays of hope in the midst of much darkness.
Kathryn Walsh - August 13, 2020 7:25 am
This is definitely one of your best columns.
Shannon - August 13, 2020 11:14 am
So beautifully written and so timely. Wonderful way to start my day!
Shannon - August 13, 2020 11:16 am
Did you do the drawing?
Rhonda - August 13, 2020 11:34 am
Sean, why on earth do we have to keep learning the same lessons over and over. We are not teaching or children well. Thank you for taking time to listen to those men. So many others would not have been so gracious and missed the blessing.
Jo Ann - August 13, 2020 12:17 pm
A loving tribute, thank you , Sean. Thankfully, we do not walk alone, though it seems so at times. We just have to remember, & hold on.
Kathy - August 13, 2020 12:19 pm
Denise McNair, Cynthia Wesley, Carole Robertson, Addie Mae Collins. Say their names. Holy ground, indeed.
Jan - August 13, 2020 12:22 pm
Beautiful tribute. You capture the true spirit of the lesson we are to learn. And learn it we must, over and over and over again. Life is precious – all life! Children are beautiful and precious and far too often they are the targets intended or unintended of hate filled people who desperately need to learn to love not hate. And so we are here again … in a place and time when we must learn to love not hate – all people, all ages, all colors – ALL PEOPLE! Thank you, Sean.
Helen De Prima - August 13, 2020 12:37 pm
Thank you, Sean.
Berryman Mary M - August 13, 2020 12:49 pm
Such wonderful, timely words for today. Thanks, Sean!
PWS - August 13, 2020 12:55 pm
Thank you, and amen.
oldandblessed - August 13, 2020 12:59 pm
Thanks for the help.
Celia - August 13, 2020 1:21 pm
I was a teenager in south Alabama when this horrific event occurred. Last year I saw the wonderful production at the Alabama Shakespeare Theater in Montgomery of their lives, their ambitions, and the futures they planned for before losing their lives. Any loss of life due to such unspeakable hatred is beyond my comprehension.
D moore - August 13, 2020 1:23 pm
Perfection Sean. God rest their beautiful souls.
For they are surely in His kingdom.
Bobby - August 13, 2020 1:57 pm
I was a law clerk for the Alabama Attorney General Bill Baxley in 1978 when he prosecuted the first man charged with the church bombing that resulted in the deaths of these four little girls. It was a courtroom setting similar to that depicted in the movie To Kill a Mockingbird. I recall making eye contact with the defendant “Dynamite Bob” Chambliss and seeing pure evil.
CK Deitch - August 13, 2020 2:08 pm
Tragic, so sad, but at the same time, words of hope. Thank you for sharing.
Anne Trawick - August 13, 2020 2:09 pm
Sean, you have moved to a new level with this post. Outstanding!
Beverly Mathias - August 13, 2020 2:29 pm
What a wonderful story at a time when this nation needs it the most.
Will we ever learn?
Gwen McGill - August 13, 2020 2:49 pm
Love that you shared this story. I started following Sarah Collins Rudolph on Instagram after reading about her sister, Addie Mae Collins being murdered that day. Sarah lost an eye in the explosion. I hope to meet her some day.
angie5804 - August 13, 2020 2:50 pm
A wonderful book that ties into this story is The Watsons go to Birmingham, 1963. by Christopher Paul Curtis. It’s a middle grades novel but as an adult I loved it.
Thomas E Wallin - August 13, 2020 3:24 pm
Amen. Thanks for sharing with all of us.
Penn Wells - August 13, 2020 3:41 pm
We know you, brother. And you do a great job in expressing yourself without invoking the divisiveness of politics. But we hear you.
Pat - August 13, 2020 3:56 pm
YA books are much more than just books for kids. These days I read them for inspiration. Some are exceptionally good snd will be classics.
Patricia Gibson - August 13, 2020 4:14 pm
Thank you for sharing ❤️
Linda Moon - August 13, 2020 5:22 pm
Birmingham. I was there on September 15,1963. It was hard. Unrest and hate were almost everywhere. Almost. No hate abided in me. Sometimes LIFE, then and now, can be harder than we could ever imagine. But help always shows up. Deus ex Machina, Sean. And blessings to the old man who zeroed in on a brother and found help that was shared with you both.
Becky Souders - August 13, 2020 5:28 pm
Hope. Just what we all need. Thanks, Sean.b
MAM - August 13, 2020 6:37 pm
Just a simple thank you!
Kathy - August 13, 2020 7:45 pm
I like your approach to this history, this episode of humanity. It brought tears to my eyes.
phyllis bayatzadeh - August 13, 2020 8:00 pm
Sean this is one of your most touching columns . Thank you.
Teri Trevino - August 13, 2020 10:01 pm
Thank you for lifting my spirits today. Some days I need a reminder God never promised that things would always be happy, but God is always with us and the hard times will not last.
pecrown - August 13, 2020 10:09 pm
So beautiful! You were blessed to meet your angel at 16th Street Baptist Church and to experience God’s love. We all only need to take time to listen. God is always here and is always found in the most unlikely places. In fact, you may have been standing in God’s presence and hearing directly from Him that beautiful day. Thank you for sharing this hopeful story.
Leslie - August 14, 2020 1:15 am
Today’s read, and you write some awfully great reads, touched me in many ways. I’m in healthcare, and I have a connection to a part of this history. I didn’t know that until I got to work this morning. All I can share is that God speaks to us in unique ways and at the most unsuspecting of times. You sharing your story today before I left for work was not a coincidence, it was a glimpse into the kingdom that we all get to be a part of. Thank you for sharing.
Susan Kennedy - August 14, 2020 2:31 am
I needed this today. 💙
sassylibbycat - August 15, 2020 6:27 pm
Colleen Hill - September 9, 2020 9:12 pm
I read this today, and yes my eyes teared up too. Got a few goose bumps on my arms also. For me, that’s God’s way of nudging me. Telling me, yes terrible things happen that can just stop you silently in the middle of the day and lift up a prayer. I’m grateful for the goose bumps and I grateful for you too. You walk with the Angels. Sometimes I see them standing right next to you. Today I see four. Blessings to you Sean.