What two ministers said: Yesterday was the fiftieth anniversary of Birmingham’s most famous Sunday.
As many people mentioned yesterday in the formal commemoration, Birmingham is not the same city today. We were struck by one part of the editorial in yesterday’s New York Times.
Three days after the bombing killed four children at Sunday school, Dr. King described the four girls as “victims of one of the most vicious and tragic crimes ever perpetrated against humanity.” Reading yesterday’s editorial, we were struck by what two Birmingham ministers had already said:
NEW YORK TIMES EDITORIAL (9/15/13): The city has planned a full day of remembrance and prayer on Sunday, along with a food festival and music. The commemorators have every right to blend somber and light as they mark a half-century of progress. But it’s worth remembering a point [Diane] McWhorter has powerfully made: the civil rights struggle was not simply a victory of good over evil, of the righteous defeating the Klansmen who gave “Bombingham” its bloody reputation. The struggle was good against “normal”—against the segregation that was seen as the natural order of things, buttressed by government, tradition and the law. In this, Dr. King and his allies were the radicals.To recall what Dr. King told a crowd in 1957 when his own home was bombed, just click here.
The most radical thing was their willful commitment to peace as a weapon for change and as a check on justified rage. The clouds from the dynamite blast had not even cleared when the Rev. John Cross stood before a furious crowd on the church’s front steps and said, “We should be forgiving as Christ was forgiving.” Then he handed a megaphone to the Rev. Charles Billups, who said: “Go home and pray for the men who did this evil deed. We must have love in our hearts for these men.”
(His own later account of his remarks that night included this: “We must love our white brothers, no matter what they do to us. We must make them know that we love them.”)
Back to Birmingham Sunday:
“We must have love in our hearts for these men?” Reading the words of the two ministers, we were struck again by the radical strangeness at the heart of the nonviolent civil rights movement.
Not everyone felt the same way about that nonviolent approach, which had been derived in large part from Gandhi. But we’re always struck by how radically strange it is that people could have reacted to such events in such unusual ways. That they could have said such things, were willing to act upon them.
We think we all have a lot to learn from those highly unusual reactions. In our view, the instinct behind those reactions is barely visible in today’s liberal world.
“We must have love in our hearts for these men?” What in the world did those ministers mean? And why was their movement successful?
Tomorrow: A car ride with Bull Connor, 1961
Dr. King's full eulogy: On September 18, 1963, Dr. King spoke at the funeral service for three of the children. To read his full speech, click here.
Among other things, Dr. King said this: “Good night, sweet princesses. Good night, those who symbolize a new day.”