Last time around we had just started our visit at the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church, where in 1963, a bomb killed four young girls and injured over 20 others during one of the most turbulent days in the Civil Rights Movement. (To start at Part One of this travel series click here.)
Either before or after the tour, visitors can reflect upon photos, media clippings and other artifacts in a small yet moving exhibit area on the lower level. It is here that the younger generation who were not born yet often begin to grasp the history here, while those who grew up during, or have now lived well beyond that time in history, reflect upon and remember the enormity and affect that history has had on their lives.
The primary part of the tour itself actually takes place in the sanctuary—a stunning, expansive space with a grand entryway, dramatic stained glass and arched windows, soaring ceilings, ebony-toned and crimson cushioned pews for 1,600 parishioners and massive pipe organ. Here, a congregant provides a historic overview of the church including the social climate in the 1960s day, famous personalities and dignitaries who have visited there-- including Paul Robeson, Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Mary McLeod Bethune and many members of the NAACP, just to name a few—and other Civil Rights Movement events leading up to the bombing.
Everyone the day I visited, including our group of travel writers, two college student groups from Alabama, a family reunion group, travelers with a senior’s group and a variety of other tourists of all generations, races and religions, sat in rapt attention as each event was meticulously detailed, including the specifics of the day of the bombing—where in the building, what time (interestingly, the clock on the wall in the lower level stopped at 10:22 am, the exact time of the bombing, and is now part of the gallery exhibit), where the girls were at the time, the position of their bodies when they were found…All the while, on two large video screens on either side of the sanctuary, a black and white photo of the four girls—one age 11 and the others age 14—smiled back at us. The sense of innocence lost was so gripping and other than the congregant’s voice, you could have heard a pin drop.
The overview was followed by a somewhat sad yet fascinating 20 minute documentary entitled “Angels of Change,” narrated by one of the churches former pastors and peppered with first-hand accounts from congregants, Civil Rights Activists, law enforcement, members of the media, the prosecuting and defense attorneys and black and white photo stills and video clips that take visitors through every aspect of that fateful day and beyond, including the search for those responsible, jury selection and the trial, history of those accused and more. Although many of us were choked up, we seemed to leave with a sense of gratitude for the many, many, willing and unwilling participants of the movement that ultimately led us to the freedoms we as a society enjoy today.
Outside, one the side of the building near a former stairway that hid the location of the bomb, is a granite memorial inscribed with the date—Sunday, September 15, 1963—and the names of four little girls whose lives were cut short that fateful day—Addie Mae Collins, Denise McNair, Carol Robertson and Cynthia Wesley—with a passage from Genesis 50:20 – “…ye thought evil against me; but God meant it unto good, to bring to pass, as it is this day, to save much people alive.”