September 15, 1963: 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama
A mere fifty years ago today America awoke to the deep and virulent hatred that smoldered in the breast of this country. It was born in an inhumanity that was present long before the founding at the country, acknowledged in the Constitution (an imperfect temporizing which is overly revered today), nurtured with legal, economic and social injustice that still is not eradicated, despite the act of reactionary terrorism that took place on that day.
The victims were as unlikely as the place the massacre took place—at a church on a Sunday morning. None of the victims would be 65 yet, if they had survived. Twenty two others were injured (one girl lost an eye), as the dynamite was timed to go off at the moment that 26 children assembled to hear a sermon on Christian forgiveness. The martyrs were:
Words could not then formulate a civilized response to the craven act of barbarism.
John Coltrane’s elegy on the event, “Alabama,” gives one response:
All history is filled with overwhelming grief, and even the smallest steps forward must be paid for in buckets of innocent blood. And yet that is not enough. Necessity then requires the innocents to bear their sorrow publicly to let the world judge whether reason exists to deny justice.
At the funeral Martin Luther King said that life was as hard as crucible steel. And though all the mourners over the world played their meek part, justice was still denied. Neither the state nor the federal government filed charges in the 1960s. It wasn’t until 1977 that the first conspirator was charged. He was sentenced to life in prison, but death shortened his sentence eight years later. Another died in 1994, never charged. A third was charged in 2001 and sentenced to life in prison. The fourth was sentenced in 2002 and died two years later. In all, the four assassins enjoyed a total of 122 years before they were charged or 72 years more than the total length their victims lived on earth.
Once it was said that these victims could count the passing of the Voting Rights Act as a memorial. But this year, despite the repeated reenactment by Congress, the Supreme Court, now filled with soulless reactionaries, struck down a key portion of the act as being outdated and not supported by the fact-finding of Congress. Justice Antonin Scalia was secure enough in his own arrogance to say that the Act, which was simply a modest and long-belated form of political justice, “embedded” a form of “racial preferment.” He said this not in a court of law, because to him laws are simply the expression of power which emanates from money, but at a private gathering at the University of California Washington Center.
Within minutes of the Court’s decision, several formerly confederates states began to draw up legislation (and in one case voted on a bill) that would restrict voting access by African-Americans, as well as other groups disfavored by the powers that be. It is therefore clear that although the victims of 50 years ago did not die in vain, America’s original sin has never been expiated. In fact, all signs suggest that buckets of blood will again be required before the rising tide of injustice and malice can be stemmed.