The 16th Street Baptist Church, the Edmund Pettus Bridge, and the Ambiguity of Southernness

Two weeks ago Jill and I took our kids to see the film Selma.  The movie is fantastic in its human portrayal of Martin Luther King, Jr., so important in an era in which King, like other great American figures, is increasingly cast in marble and consequently risks losing his humanity among us.  There are two images from the film that have stayed with me.

David Oyelowo portraying Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in the film "Selma."

David Oyelowo portraying Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in the film Selma.

The first comes early on, when four little girls are descending the stairs in their Sunday best at the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham.  They are discussing girlish things with smiles on their faces, when the church is blown apart without warning, killing all four.  As a viewer, even knowing that it is coming, the horror of the scene is a jarring, graphic reminder of the violence people are sometimes willing to do to one another due to differences in race, ethnicity, religion, or lifestyle.

The four girls killed in the bombing at 16th Street Baptist Church, Birmingham, Alabama, September 15, 1963.

The four girls killed in the bombing at 16th Street Baptist Church, Birmingham, Alabama, September 15, 1963.

The other image is of the second march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge, when Dr. King, John Lewis, and a beautiful diversity of races and religions walk hand-in-hand, in prayerful solidarity with one another.

I grew up in the segregated South.  You may do the math and realize that, at age forty-two, I was born well after Brown v. Board of Education, the Central High School crisis in Little Rock, the Civil Rights Act, and the Voting Rights Act.  And yet, I did indeed grow up in a de facto segregated South.  In my hometown, there were no African-Americans.  I mean that literally.  My mother, who returned to school to earn her library certification when I was in junior high, researched a paper on why this was so.  Extending back generations, the reasons were ominous.  There were veiled threats of violence.  There was actual violence.  Decades before, it had been made clear that African-Americans were unwelcome.  My early exposure to non-white Southerners, therefore, was through high school sporting events against teams from other towns, and the football field and basketball gym are not the best places to engender cross-cultural appreciation and understanding.

(It is important to note that the hometown I knew in the 1970s and 1980s, while monochromatic, was a place I experienced as open-minded and loving.  I don’t know how we’d have responded had African-Americans moved to town during that time, because it did not happen.)


March toward Edmund Pettus Bridge

I love being Southern, with our culture, music, food, and more.  But I also live in the tension of what the alt-rock band Drive-By Truckers calls “the duality of the Southern thing.”  My adult life has included the attempt to reconcile a sometimes ambiguous heritage with a commitment to the Gospel in which there is “no Jew or Greek, no slave or free, no male or female,” no black or white.  “For we all are one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28).

As we move into Black History Month, it is important to hold side-by-side the images of the 16th Street Baptist Church and the steady march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge, so that we remember both the worst and the best of which we are capable.  As Christians, may we always embody the best and walk hand-in-hand as brothers and sisters in Christ.

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One thought on “The 16th Street Baptist Church, the Edmund Pettus Bridge, and the Ambiguity of Southernness

  1. Thank you for your openness about the Southern perspective. I am a Northerner and a child of the 60’s. I grew up in an integrated city, where many of my African-American classmates were the children of my parents classmates. Our circle of girlfriends included a brilliant black woman whose warmth and humor fill my memories, even today. I didn’t know anything about segregation and the kind of hatred between the races that became the normal television news coverage once I entered college. I do remember the fear, both mine personally and that of my African-American housemates, once demonstrations came to Chicago and my university. My friends were called home by fearful, loving parents who wanted to protect their children from harm. Those left on campus were told to not to venture off campus and to be watchful of their surroundings. Dr. King and the Civil Rights movement changed my perspective and probably my life. This film should be required viewing for all high school aged children, followed by serious discussions on fairness and equality, basic rights guaranteed to all Americans. At a time when some of the progress made by the Civil Rights movement seems to be eroding, everyone should be reminded of the indecency of the past and the sacrifices made by so many, of all races. We dare not go back.

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