Today the church remembers with sadness and indignation a group of young saints martyred on the altar of racism and white supremacy. On Sunday, September 15, 1963, four members of a local Ku Klux Klan chapter planted 19 sticks of dynamite attached to a timing device beneath the steps located on the east side of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, AL. As Sunday School was beginning, the bomb went off, and Addie Mae Collins, Carole Robertson, Cynthia Wesley, and Denise McNair were murdered. In addition, more than twenty others were injured.
Although the FBI concluded in 1965 that the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing had been committed by four known Klansmen and segregationists, the courts found the accused not guilty of murder but laughingly fined them $100 and gave them six months in jail because they illegally possessed dynamite. Ten years later, in 1973, the case was retried, and they eventually received a life sentence. The public funeral for these saints was attended by 8,000 mourners, but no public officials in Alabama thought fit to have their faces seen there.
Described by Martin Luther King Jr. as “one of the most vicious and tragic crimes ever perpetrated against humanity”, the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing marked a turning point in the United States during the civil rights movement and also contributed to support for the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 by Congress.
Today’s commemoration reminds us that we are not so many years removed from this tragedy to take for granted that people are safe regardless of the color of their skin. The sin of racism continues to unravel the bonds that hold us together as fellow children of God. As we remember those whose lives were so unjustly robbed from them, it is our calling to continually repent the sin of racism and remain ever vigilant to defend the rights and safety of our neighbors.
And so we confess, lament and pray:
Most Holy God, the sin of racism hurts communities of color, fractures human relationships, and denies your good creation. And yet we know that nothing can separate us from your love in Christ Jesus. And so we are freed for the difficult work of recognizing and lamenting racism.
As part of one body in Christ, called to act with equity, fairness, and justice. God’s saving love creates grace-filled spaces within us and within our relationships. God’s saving love calls and leads us toward rooting out the racism that continues to infect the body.
As we labor to create a loving and safe community for our siblings of color, we recommit ourselves to loving one another as you have loved us. We pray in the name of the one who has made us one, Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.