Remembering the Bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church Fifty Years Ago

The Atlantic magazine has an in depth piece of historical journalism up on their web site from the magazine, as part of 50th anniversary of the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama that killed four young Black girls.

The article tells of a young White lawyer who had the temerity to stand up a few days later in a meeting of the all the leading business and political leadership of the city, and speak truth and justice against the deep and inbred racism of the White people of the city.

As a result, the death threats became so great he of course had to end his practice and flee the city.

On Monday, September 16, 1963, a young Alabama lawyer named Charles Morgan Jr., a white man with a young family, a Southerner by heart and heritage, stood up at a lunch meeting of the Birmingham Young Men’s Business Club, at the heart of the city’s white Establishment, and delivered a speech about race and prejudice that bent the arc of the moral universe just a little bit more toward justice. It was a speech that changed Morgan’s life—and 50 years later its power and eloquence are worth revisiting. Just hours after the church bombing, Morgan spoke these words:

Four little girls were killed in Birmingham yesterday. A mad, remorseful worried community asks, “Who did it? Who threw that bomb? Was it a Negro or a white?” The answer should be, “We all did it.” Every last one of us is condemned for that crime and the bombing before it and a decade ago. We all did it.

Following the speech, the threats began almost immediately. The very next morning, at 5 a.m., Morgan received a call. “Is the mortician there yet?” a voice asked. “I don’t know any morticians,” Morgan responded. “Well, you will,” the voice answered, “when the bodies are all over your front yard.” Later, Morgan recounted, a client of his drove an hour to tell him to flee Birmingham. “They’ll shoot you down like a dog,” the client told Morgan. Little wonder that Morgan quickly closed down his law practice and moved himself and his family to safety.

“Chuck told me that he received a stream of threats both by telephone and letter for weeks after his speech,” recalls Steve Suitts, the renowned author, scholar, and civil libertarian who was one of Morgan’s longtime friends. “Once we discussed the anonymous threats that Alabama-born Justice Hugo Black received from white Southerners after the Brown decision, and a note I had found in Black’s papers saying ‘Nigger-lovers don’t live long in Alabama.’ Chuck smiled and said he got the very same language in a note after his speech in 1963.

“But, the threats that worried Chuck the most were those made against his wife, Camille, and his little boy, Charles,” Suitts told me this week via email. “He once told me that he had received a note that he did not share with Camille or anyone else. It listed all the places that Camille and Charles had been on a recent Saturday and said something like, ‘Wife and kid of a troublemaker ain’t always getting home. Next time?’ That one worried him the most, because it meant someone had actually followed his family all day.”

The Speech That Shocked Birmingham the Day After the Church Bombing

I was a young teen in Birmingham during those times, a witness to history, as it were. We left Alabama in 1969, and I have never wanted to move back, having lived in Germany, Tennessee, Illinois, and Indiana.

In all honesty, having stayed in touch with family and friends over the years, there have been changes, and advances have been made in opportunities for education and jobs, and the strict segregation of the races in public accommodation is gone. But the segregation that characterized neighborhoods still prevails. The mixed race neighborhood is still the exception, not the rule.

I just can’t say that the underlying deep racism in beliefs and attitudes has really changed that much in Alabama and the deep South. Not when I still read stories in 2013 about high schools that still have racially segregated prom nights for seniors.

Alabama politics especially remain profoundly racist and intolerant and about as far right wing conservative as possible. Why would I want to return to that state of mind to live out my remaining days?

I want to thank The Atlantic for publishing this piece, and bringing this lawyer and his words and this part of the history to light, as a reminder of how truly tragic and deep the racism in this nation was at the time.

Remember, I grew up in a Birmingham where there were different water fountains for whites and colored, clearly labeled; where by law Blacks rode in the back of the bus; where colored people could not use the elevators in office buildings. Whites considered Blacks an inferior species, worthy only of joking ridicule, scorn, derision, and ghettoization. Laws were on the books preventing them from voting, and forbidding interracial marriage. The racism was de jure, not just de facto.

Bombing Black homes was standard procedure during the early sixties, as the Klan and the entrenched political Whites used every means, including violence, to try and stem the advancing tide of Civil Rights demands by Blacks, threatening and unreasonable demands like the ability to vote, and to have the same equal access to education and the law and jobs as Whites; to be treated as human beings, in other words. The one neighborhood where more affluent Blacks lived at the time came to be nicknamed “Dynamite Hill”. There were 40 plus bombings that took place in Birmingham between the late 40s and the mid 60s. Forty-some unsolved bombings,

We as a species and society want to ignore and forget the horrors we inflict, so we pretend they never existed. Seriously, how often do we openly discuss the essentially genocidal relocation and extermination policies we inflicted on American Indiana tribes as we moved west? That pretty much sums up the GOP party right now. It rode to power from the 1980’s on a platform specifically designed to leverage racial hatred and prejudice, that is all the Southern Strategy amounted to, nothing more, nothing less.

The GOP and conservatives on the right try to deny this, but Lee Atwater, the author of the strategy, finally later in life explicitly admitted to it and his speech was captured and recorded for posterity, and recently published by James Carter IV.

It has become, for liberals and leftists enraged by the way Republicans never suffer the consequences for turning electoral politics into a cesspool, a kind of smoking gun. The late, legendarily brutal campaign consultant Lee Atwater explains how Republicans can win the vote of racists without sounding racist themselves:

You start out in 1954 by saying, “Nigger, nigger, nigger.” By 1968 you can’t say “nigger”—that hurts you, backfires. So you say stuff like, uh, forced busing, states’ rights, and all that stuff, and you’re getting so abstract. Now, you’re talking about cutting taxes, and all these things you’re talking about are totally economic things and a byproduct of them is, blacks get hurt worse than whites.… “We want to cut this,” is much more abstract than even the busing thing, uh, and a hell of a lot more abstract than “Nigger, nigger.”

Exclusive: Lee Atwater’s Infamous 1981 Interview on the Southern Strategy
The forty-two-minute recording, acquired by James Carter IV, confirms Atwater’s incendiary remarks and places them in context.

I can only hope that now that the so-called Millenials are coming into power as a key demographic and electoral element, we are going to see an end to these evil behaviors and attitudes, as the older generation finally starts dying off. Because apparently, that is what it will take.


Author: Ron