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60 Years Ago in Birmingham
Learning from tragedy
September 15, 1963 — 60 years ago today. An act of murderous cowardice in Birmingham, Alabama, shocked a nation. A bomb at the 16th Street Baptist Church placed by Klansmen killed four girls as they attended Sunday school. Many others were wounded.
As Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. would say in eulogy, “These children — unoffending, innocent, and beautiful — were the victims of one of the most vicious and tragic crimes ever perpetrated against humanity.”
Let us pause in remembrance. Please say their names aloud. They deserve our recognition:
(Left to right)
Denise McNair, age 11.
Carole Robertson, 14.
Addie Mae Collins, 14.
Cynthia Wesley, 14.
This horrific act is not ancient history. Some of you were of memory age at the time it happened. And it was not an isolated act of violence. Rather, it was part of a bloody, tragic, and unjust campaign of terror that stretches from before our country’s birth into our present age. It is a story of murder, torture, rape, lynching, and the tearing apart of families. It is a story of Jim Crow, redlining, and voter suppression. And now it is a story that powerful forces in our country would like us to forget, or at least sanitize from the unadulterated truth.
And yet, throughout our history, bigotry has not gone unanswered. Women and men of courage and fortitude have reminded us that we should walk a path toward equality and justice. Many have sacrificed greatly in service to our nation’s highest ideals.
This bombing was an act of domestic terrorism meant to stifle a growing Civil Rights Movement. It had the opposite effect. Less than a year later, President Lyndon Johnson signed the groundbreaking Civil Rights Act.
Progress has been made. However, we are reminded in our current age that the forces of white supremacy will never give up their privilege without a fight. We see more acts of racist violence, more denying of reality, more attempts to rewrite history. It is a cynically destructive ploy for power at the expense of our national unity and the truth.
All this was on the mind of Supreme Court Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson this morning, when the first Black woman to serve on the court went to the 16th Street Baptist Church to commemorate the bombing’s anniversary. It was the justice’s first trip to Alabama, but she told those in the pews, “I felt in my spirit that I had to come.”
What she subsequently shared was an acknowledgement of the past and an admonition for our present and our future. We were moved by her words and want to include some of them here, as well as a video of the entire speech, should you wish to watch.
Justice Jackson began by contrasting the story of the Birmingham bombing and her own personal journey.
I come with the understanding that I didn’t reach these professional heights on my own, that people of all races and faiths, people of courage and conviction, cleared the path for me in the wake of the horrible tragedy that snuffed out the too-brief lives of those four little girls inside this sacred space.
I’ve come to Alabama with a heart filled with gratitude, for unlike those four little girls, I have lived and have been entrusted with the solemn responsibility of serving our great nation, a service that I hope will inspire people. And especially young people to think about what is possible.
Justice Jackson later entered what she called the “warning part of my message.”
What is needed is for all of us to pay careful attention to what we know. Oppressors of every stripe, from the slavemaster to the dictator, have recognized for centuries that knowledge is a powerful tool. They have seen that, once acquired, it can be wielded. And once wielded, it is transformative. Knowledge emboldens people, and it frees them. The work of our time is maintaining that hard-won freedom. And to do that, we are going to need the truth, the whole truth about our past.
We must teach it to our children and preserve it for theirs. In other words, my parents were right all along. As I explained at the outset, during my time as a youngster, my parents taught me lots of uplifting things about places like Birmingham, and Montgomery, and Selma. The marches and the meetings, the sense of empowerment from belonging to a community in action...
But my parents also taught me about the darker moments of the times — the dogs, the fire hoses, the bombs. There was a reason my parents felt it was important to introduce me to those uncomfortable topics. It was not to make me feel like a victim or crush my spirits. To the contrary, my parents understood that I had to know those hard truths in order to expand my horizons.
They understood that we can only know where we are, and where we’re going, if we realize where we’ve been.
Knowledge of the past is what enables us to mark our forward progress. If we are going to continue to move forward as a nation, we cannot allow concerns about discomfort to displace knowledge, truth, or history. It is certainly the case that parts of this country’s story can be hard to think about. I know that atrocities like the one we are memorializing today are difficult to remember and relive. But I also know that it is dangerous to forget them.
We cannot forget, because the uncomfortable lessons are often the ones that teach us the most about ourselves. We cannot forget, because we cannot learn from past mistakes we do not know exist...
So yes, learning about our country’s history can be painful. But history is also our best teacher. Yes, our past is filled with too much violence, too much hatred, too much prejudice, but can we really say that we are not confronting those same evils now?
We have to own even the darkest parts of our past, understand them, and vow never to repeat them. We must not shield our eyes. We must not shrink away, lest we lose it all. The path we need to take, one of remembrance, knowledge, and understanding, is certainly not the easy road, but it is the only one that can guarantee our democracy’s ultimate survival.
And I am confident that, just like generations of Americans before us, we are up to the challenge. Armed with our history, well-prepared by our past, and secure in the knowledge of what we have been through and where we’re headed, we will triumph in the valiant struggle to promote constitutional values and to obtain freedom and justice for all.
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