It was fifty years ago on September 15, 1963 that the historic 16th Street Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama was blown away, taking the lives of four little girls. The names of Cynthia Wesley, Carole Robertson, Addie Mae Collins, and Denise McNair – young victims of hate – are forever carved in history. The men who planted the 19 sticks of dynamite were brought to justice by Ret. police Sgt. Ben Herren and senior FBI agent Bill Flemming. Nineteen other churchgoers were injured in the blast, some taken immediately to the hospital. Their names were never nationally known as survivors of the vicious crime.
Robert “Dynamite” Chambliss was convicted 15 months later. In 2000, KKK member Bobby Cherry was arrested followed by Thomas Blanton in 2002. Chambliss and Cherry died in prison while Blanton serves a life sentence.
The bombing not only shook the nation, but it reached overseas to the heart of a man named John Petts. He was in Wales, 4,000 miles from the scene of the crime.
The white artist and father from Wales was not only shaken by the young lives lost in the act of hatred, but also by the artistry that was blown away inside the church. Looking for a way to contribute, Petts teamed with a local editor named David Cole to solicit funds that would be used toward a new stained glass window for the Alabama church. His goal was to make the new window a collaborative effort symbolizing unity among the people of Wales. No one was allowed to contribute more than half a crown to keep rich people from taking the focus off the church. In a short time, The Western Mail newspaper was publishing photos of both black and white children in Wales lining up to give funds toward 16th Street Baptist Church restoration.
Between the bombing and 1964, John Petts visited the church in Alabama. Clueless as to how he would approach the project, Petts consulted Matthew 25:40 and saw the amazing vision of the stained glass window in his mind. In 1965, John Petts installed a stained glass window picturing an African American Jesus Christ with one hand stretched out against hatred and the other offering forgiveness. It was a groundbreaking scene for the 1960s, especially since Southern Baptist whites would most likely be against the scene of a black Lord and Savior.
The stained glass window still sits proudly at 16th Street Baptist Church, representing international unity and the lives lost that September in 1963. John Petts passed away in 1991.
This past May, President Obama signed legislation that awarded the Congressional Gold Medal to the four little girls.