From the pulpit to the parks, the city of Birmingham this week is looking for thousands of people to visit that city this week to commemorate the 50th anniversary of one of the most horrific acts of racial violence in the nation’s history and to see how the city has changed.
On September 15, 1963, a bomb planted by the Ku Klux Klan ripped through the east side of 16th Street Baptist Church, killing Addie Mae Collins, Carole Robertson, Denise McNair and Cynthia Wesley. Also on that day in separate acts of violence, Virgil Ware was shot by an Eagle Scout as he rode on the handlebars of his brother’s bicycle and 16-year-old Johnny Robinson was shot by a police officer as he and other youths ran in an alley near downtown.
The girls were honored today when their family members were presented Congressional Gold Medals on their behalf. Throughout the week, bells will toll, plays will be presented and speeches, sermons and lessons given to tell the story of September 15, 1963.
Mayor William Bell grew up in Birmingham and was a young teen in 1963. He wants to show this week how the city has changed since the world saw the many acts of hatred in the city 50 years ago.
“I grew up in an environment where African Americans had limited visions of what they could do in society. Then there was transition,” says Bell. “Civil rights leaders, business leaders and others felt that Birmingham needed to change. I witnessed that change and I am a beneficiary of that change.”
Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., who led the Birmingham Civil Rights movement in the 1960s along with Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth, said church worship services were the most segregated events in Alabama and throughout America. On Wednesday evening, members of the faith community – different races and denominations – will come together for a commemorative service featuring gospel recording artist Donnie McClurkin and actor Clifton Davis.
The event at Kelly Ingram Park will be broadcast on the Trinity Broadcasting Network. Kelly Ingram Park was a different place 50 years ago. Children were attacked by police dogs and blasted with firehoses as they marched for better school facilities and equal access to public places.
Also on Wednesday, the city will observe a day of service. More than 5,000 volunteers from the faith-based community, companies, colleges, universities, the city and civic organizations will clean up city parks, libraries and communities in this citywide event.
On Thursday, the U.S. Conference of Mayors will be in the city and host a conference at 16th Street Baptist. And on Saturday, Jamie Foxx, Jil Scott and Charlie Wilson will perform in the BBVA Concert for Human Rights.
Sunday will mark a full day of commemorative events.
At 16th Street Baptist Church, the Rev. Julius Scruggs, president of the National Baptist Convention USA, will preach at a 11 a.m. worship service. Prior to the regular service, a wreath will be placed at the spot at the church where the bomb blast claimed the lives of the four girls. Church bells also will toll.
Greater Shiloh Missionary Baptist, an inner city congregation, and Edgewood Presbyterian Church in the suburb of Homewood are encouraging churches around the nation to teach a lesson on love and forgiveness on Sunday, in memory of the four girls. The Sunday School lesson that day in 1963 was “The Love That Forgives.”
Events to commemorate and educate people about the historic events of 1963 are not limited to the city of Birmingham.
Erich McMillan-McCall, a Birmingham native who is a New York-based actor and producer, envisioned sharing the story of the four girls while also bringing together theatre groups around the country to present a theatrical work.
The play, “Four Little Girls,” was written by Christina Ham, a playwright who is a Birmingham native. This week it will be presented on more than 35 stages from New York to Hawaii. The performance at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. will be archived on the center’s website for 30 days and will be directed by Phylicia Rashad. That live performance will be at 6 p.m. on Sunday.
“This play is about life, not death,” McMillan-McCall told BlackAmericaweb.com. “It does not pretend that these girls did not perish at the hands of homegrown terrorists. Nor does it pretend that their lives were not impacted by discrimination.”
The play, which includes black and white actors and music from the 1960s, also explores the humanity of the four little girls and discusses what may have happened in their lives if they had not faced the tragedy.
“What did Addie Mae dream? What did Cynthia wonder about? What made Carole’s heart sing? What put a smile on Denise’s face?” McMillan-McCall said. “How much did they really understand about the movement and the roles they might somehow play?”
The city also put together a traveling exhibit of old files, police arrest records, newspapers and video footage from the 1960s to commemorate this year’s 50th anniversary of 1963.
That exhibit has made stops in several major cities including, Washington D.C., New Orleans, Memphis, New York, Columbia, S.C. and Jackson, Miss.
“Long after this week has ended we plan to continue sharing the exhibit with other cities,” said Chuck Faush, chief of staff for the mayor.
“We will build on our history and continue sharing the story of how Birmingham has changed,” Faush told BlackAmericaweb.com.
For more information on commemorative events this week in Birmingham, go to 50yearsforward.com.