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Lessons from the Civil Rights Movement

Despite uncertainties, failures, and threats, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and those in the civil rights movement kept up the fight for justice and equality.

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A cross with roses sits on the marker commemorating the spot where a bomb was detonated 50 years ago by the Ku Klux Klan, which killed four young girls, at the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, Sunday, September 15, 2013. (AP/Hal Yeager)
A cross with roses sits on the marker commemorating the spot where a bomb was detonated 50 years ago by the Ku Klux Klan, which killed four young girls, at the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, Sunday, September 15, 2013. (AP/Hal Yeager)

Fifty years ago last Sunday, four girls were killed and many more people were injured when a bomb exploded in the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama. The bomb went off at 10:22 in the morning on September 15, 1963, after Bible classes and before the 11:00 a.m. church service. The girls had gathered in the church basement ladies’ room, excited about the new school year and their participation in the morning service. It was the annual youth day, and they were dressed in white.

Addie Mae Collins, Carole Robertson, Cynthia Wesley, and Denise McNair were killed by a dynamite bomb planted by Robert Chambliss and other members of the Ku Klux Klan. They were ages 11 to 14.

The bombing shocked America and the world. Coming less than three weeks after the March on Washington, it was a sobering, ugly reminder that the battle for racial equality and justice was so abhorrent to so many white people that—beyond lynching, shooting, and beating black people and blowing up their homes—they felt compelled to bomb a church on a Sunday morning. The bombing was also a stark reminder of the high cost of justice and equality, measured in lost lives.

When we look back at the March on Washington and the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church, it is tempting to draw a line from one event to the other—and to connect them to the earlier Freedom Rides and to subsequent actions, tracing an inevitable path to civil rights victories and a more equitable society. But such an unbroken line is misleading because it misses the reverses, wanderings, and stalls that constantly threatened the civil rights movement. It gives a false sense of direction to a struggle that was anything but linear or inevitable.

In the fall of 1963, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and his fellow leaders faced daunting challenges from inside and outside the movement. After a brief period of shock and sympathy following the church bombing, forces of racial resistance and inertia reasserted themselves, even as the black community seethed with grief and rage. A week after the bombing, Dr. King went to Washington and asked President John F. Kennedy to send federal troops to Birmingham to replace the brutal, racist local police. President Kennedy refused. Instead, he offered to send two white men as part of a study panel to “open communication between the races.” Such an ineffectual response made Dr. King look foolish and prompted many of his colleagues and followers to question his effectiveness.

At the same time, young people within the movement were pressing for a massive voting rights campaign across Alabama, hoping to use the ballot box to drive out racist leaders. Dr. King found their plan poorly timed and refused to approve it. This infuriated many of the young people, who felt pushed to the brink of violence without a concrete course of action.

Meanwhile, arrests, bombings, and protests continued. The FBI intensified its plotting against Dr. King and other civil rights leaders. The movement faced internal schisms and lacked money. Everyone was exhausted.

But through all of these dispiriting uncertainties, challenges, and threats, Dr. King and his followers kept on. They pushed through discouragement and regrouped after failure, sustained by faith and a fervent belief in nonviolent resistance.

They had no idea if their actions were powerful enough to bend the racist laws and institutions that were entrenched and sanctified in our country—or if their suffering was sufficient to transform the attitudes and behavior of the larger society. In the confusing swirl of battle, the men and women working for justice had no idea if they would win.

We now know that in many profound ways, they won. The Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Voting Rights Act of 1965, the election of President Barack Obama in 2008 and his re-election in 2012, and many other victories in between would not have happened without their endurance and sacrifice.

It is worth remembering those difficult days as we renew the fight for voting rights today. Powerful conservative forces are working to make voting more difficult, especially for youth, the elderly, people in low-income neighborhoods, and communities of color. By instituting burdensome requirements such as government identification cards and by cutting back on voting hours, forbidding college students from voting where they go to school, and more, oppositional forces are seeking to suppress the vote and restrict political participation.

If Addie Mae Collins, Carole Robertson, Cynthia Wesley, and Denise McNair had not been murdered, they would be in their 60s today. Their grandchildren would be close to or at voting age. These four girls and their families paid the ultimate price, sacrificing their lives for a cause with goals of justice that have not yet been fully won. It is up to the rest of us to continue the fight.

Sally Steenland is Director of the Faith and Progressive Policy Initiative at the Center for American Progress. Steenland, a best-selling author, former newspaper columnist, and teacher, explores the role of religion and values in the public sphere.

The positions of American Progress, and our policy experts, are independent, and the findings and conclusions presented are those of American Progress alone. A full list of supporters is available here. American Progress would like to acknowledge the many generous supporters who make our work possible.


Sally Steenland

Former Director, Faith and Progressive Policy Initiative

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