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23 Dedham Avenue
Needham, MA 02492

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First Parish Honors the Victims of the Birmingham Church Bombing

Lesley Nelksen, Si Si Goneconto, Vicky Makrides, Marianne McGowan and Jackie Shepard

Last Friday was the 60th anniversary of a horrific event in American history.  On September 15, 1963, at 10:22 a.m. a bomb exploded inside the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama.  Four young Black girls were killed as they were getting ready for their church’s Youth Sunday service and another was severely injured, losing an eye. The terrorist act was committed by members of the Ku Klux Klan and became a galvanizing force in the Civil Rights Movement. The senseless killing of innocent children was immortalized in a song called “Birmingham Sunday,” written by Richard Farina and recorded by both Joan Baez and Rhiannon among other performers. And this year, faith communities throughout Birmingham and in other parts of the country honored the four girls in a special way.

Lisa McNair, the sister of one of the victims, Denise McNair, organized a memorial in Birmingham for the 60th anniversary of the bombing. She asked churches there to ring their bells and for synagogues to blow the shofar at exactly 10:22 a.m to remember what happened and to prevent it from happening again. McNair’s message spread to New England, and the Robbins House in Concord asked churches and synagogues in the Boston area to join in the memorial. A group of us at First Parish rang our Paul Revere bell for four minutes to commemorate the event – one minute for each of the victims: Addie Mae Collins, Cynthia Wesley, and Carole Robertson, all 14 years old, and Denise McNair, who was 11. Addie Mae’s sister Sarah survived.

And while we were doing that, Charles Thomas, a member of our DEI Committee, was driving to Birmingham from Montogomery, Alabama, where he visited the Legacy Museum and Memorial to Justice and Peace.

Charles writes, “I had already intended to leave Montgomery on Friday the 15th, driving through Birmingham on my way home; learning of this 60th anniversary of the girls’ deaths, however, made me decide to stop in Birmingham, arriving after the commemoration service when many people were still on the sidewalks. I saw the 16th Street Baptist Church building, visited the very moving Four Spirits Memorial in Kelly Ingram Park and toured part of the museum within the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute.”

Several hundred people gathered inside the 16th Street Baptist Church on Friday, where they heard Supreme Court Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson speak from the pulpit. Justice Brown Jackson said that although events such as the one that took the lives of the four girls are painful to remember, it is “dangerous to forget them .. We have to own even the darkest parts of our past, understand them and vow never to repeat them.”

As the first Black woman to serve on the Supreme Court, Justice Brown Jackson is seen by many as a legacy of the gains African Americans made because of the Civil Rights Movement.

“It has been 60 years in the making. Dr. Martin Luther King said that these girls would not have died in vain and our speaker, Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson, is the personification of that today. She is that hope,” former U.S. Sen. Doug Jones said.

For a history of the context and the events leading up to the bombing and what happened to the perpetrators, read Heather Cox Richardson’s letter here.

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