Unfinished Lives

Remembering LGBT Hate Crime Victims

Remembering the 16th Street Baptist Church Martyrs: A Special Comment on Religion and Violence

Cynthia Wesley, Carole Robertson, Addie Mae Collins, and Denise McNair. They did not die in vain.

Birmingham, Alabama – Today (September 15) marks the 49th anniversary of the senseless murder of four little girls attending Sunday School at 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama: Cynthia Wesley, Carole Robertson, and Addie Mae Collins who were 14, and Denise McNair who was 12.  The church was bombed on September 15, 1963 by a Ku Klux Klan related group in a vain attempt to terrorize the African American community. The nation was stunned by the news, and virtually overnight, these four young innocents became the leading figures in a renewed non-violent Civil Rights movement led by Christian clergy.  Non-violent outrage over their deaths, arguably, became the impetus for the greatest achievement of the black liberation movement in the United States: the Voter Rights Act of 1965.

Wesley, Robertson, Collins, and McNair should, of course, be remembered perpetually for the loss of their young lives to race hatred in the great Civil Rights struggle of the 1960s.  But this year, their loss, and the response of the African American Christian community to their outrageous murders at the time, is a lesson the world needs most acutely.  In the wake of violence throughout the Muslim world over a blasphemous online video defaming the Prophet, and the mounting death toll of American diplomats and Muslim demonstrators, the world needs to pause, take a deep breath, remember the 16th Street children, and choose better ways of protest.

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton gave a movingly personal speech Thursday in the aftermath of attacks on U.S. diplomatic missions in the Middle East, calling on religions of the world to affirm non-violence rather than bloodshed. ABC OTUS News reports that Secretary Clinton, speaking at an Eid ul-Fitr reception marking the end of the Muslim holiday of Ramadan, decried both the “inflammable and despicable” anti-Islamic film circulating on the internet, and the violence that took the lives of four Americans at the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi, Libya.  While all religions inevitably face insults and defamation, she said, the way in which believers choose to respond to these affronts is what separates people of true faith from pretenders who use such events as excuses to lash out with violence. “When Christians are subject to insults to their faith, and that certainly happens, we expect them not to resort to violence. When Hindus or Buddhists are subjected to insults to their faiths, and that also certainly happens, we expect them not to resort to violence,” Clinton said. “The same goes for all faiths, including Islam.”  

Speaking out of her own faith as a United Methodist Christian, Secretary Clinton went on to say, “I so strongly believe that the great religions of the world are stronger than any insults. They have withstood offense for centuries. Refraining from violence, then, is not a sign of weakness in one’s faith; it is absolutely the opposite, a sign that one’s faith is unshakable.”  Rather than take the path of violence, she said, when one person acts with violence, a million should respond with deeds of religious tolerance and reconciliation. Instead of amplifying hatred, she concluded, each of us must commit ourselves to acts of religious tolerance in our own communities of faith.

Reflecting on the lessons of the 16th Street martyrs, the verdict of history is that only the power of love can conquer senseless hatred–the sort of love typified by the non-violent Southern Christian Leadership Conference in the wake of irrational hate crimes like the murders of four little girls nearly fifty years ago. Hate crimes are brutal teachers, but the precepts they teach can lead toward justice and hope, and away from hatred and fear.  The difference is the choices we make and the deeds we do. When confronted with savagery, African American Christians and their allies answered with courage and a greater love–love for what is best in faith, what is best in society, and what is supreme in human experience: the power of reconciliation and hope.

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., in his eulogy for the four little girls on September 18, 1963, said to the grieving city of Birmingham:

“These tragic deaths may lead our nation to substitute an aristocracy of character for an aristocracy of color. The spilled blood of these innocent girls may cause the whole citizenry of Birmingham to transform the negative extremes of a dark past into the positive extremes of a bright future. Indeed this tragic event may cause the white South to come to terms with its conscience. And so I stand here to say this afternoon to all assembled here, that in spite of the darkness of this hour, we must not despair. We must not become bitter, nor must we harbor the desire to retaliate with violence. No, we must not lose faith in our white brothers. Somehow we must believe that the most misguided among them can learn to respect the dignity and the worth of all human personality.”

Never has the challenge to true hearts been greater than today.  The lessons of our forebears and the martyrs who preceded us point away from fear and violence and toward justice and love.  The Unfinished Lives Project Team, then, offers this simple prayer for a better world: “Let there be peace on earth, and let it begin with me.”

September 15, 2012 - Posted by | African Americans, Alabama, Hate Crimes, Racism, religious intolerance, Remembrances, Social Justice Advocacy, U.S. State Department | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

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