Were it not for the majesty and power of its enduring lessons, history would be worth much less. As in interesting reading at best and a dust-dry recitation of unimaginable times long past at worst.
Yet, within the continuum of recorded events, some stand out still. Large among them was a murderous act that plumbed the depths of evil to which depraved men could plunge. That being the cowardly bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham 50 years ago to this day.
It was an exclamation point in history that, we believe, can still teach lessons today.
The bombing is perhaps most resonant, we’d suggest, because of the way forward and upward that it pointed out from the dust and ruin of a shattered church. For we believe men and women of goodwill were — and remain — the silent majority. We should not forget that. And we should govern ourselves accordingly, as individuals and as a people who call themselves Southerners – and Americans.
That can be a difficult task today, when people are as apt to revile views they disagree with, rather than listen respectfully or even consider another side. We should ask ourselves which best serves our history. We believe there is but one correct answer.
For even in the South of a half century ago – a place convulsing with the struggle to move beyond a segregated society — the Sunday morning explosion in Birmingham rocked many out of comfortable zones of complacency. Profound change was given speed by the act of terror that killed four little girls preparing for youth worship services.
The attack was a murderous affront to the Constitution’s majestic words guaranteeing “the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.” That attack on our bedrock notions could not stand – not in America.
In the explosion’s aftermath, the ideals nailed down in the Declaration of Independence held fast – strengthened even by the lost lives of four children who, like the innumerable caravan of patriots before and after – had given their lives that the nation’s highest callings might withstand yet another test inked in blood. These sacrifices have not been in vain. God willing, they never will be.
Thus, it was fitting that leaders of Congress put aside partisan bickering for an hour last week and awarded that body’s highest civilian honor – the Congressional Gold Medal – to the four little girls of Birmingham. This bipartisan act gives us hope that America’s ability to weather any storm that arises before us – from without or within – remains fundamentally intact.
This year of historic anniversaries should also resonate deeply in Atlanta’s spirit. For while much of Birmingham’s oppressive old guard of a half-century ago played right into the strategy of the civil rights movement’s leaders, Atlanta – for its part – found a productive and peaceful way forward through the tumult.
Buckhead Coalition President Sam Massell, who was Atlanta’s mayor from 1970 to 1974, said last week that Atlanta’s brash and often-youthful leaders – in the civil rights, political and business arenas – played a large part in this metro area’s relatively calm journey through a national period of upheaval.
“I have to look back now and see the good fortune,” Massell said. Atlanta’s leaders of that era came to ultimately regard each other as equals. And that helped build a foundation for the rapid growth and prosperity that followed.
“The blacks at the table had Phi Beta Kappa keys that were just as shiny as those of the whites,” recalled Massell. “They were as well-read, as well-traveled as the whites.” As the late Dan Sweat Jr., former president of Central Atlanta Progress, told a visiting reporter in 1990, “Black plus white equals green here.” That was, and is, the Atlanta Way.
In their own ways, both Birmingham and Atlanta imparted lessons to a nation that is the better for having listened. Andrew Young noted to this board last week that a courageous group of Birmingham business people had begun dialogue with civil rights leaders even before the church bombing.
As a result of our collective struggles, we have come a long, rugged way toward the more-perfect union our founders envisioned. That is an important takeaway from this year’s march of historical commemorations.
Yet, we’ve got a ways yet to go, as we all instinctively know. To give just one example, too many people of all races are still the victim of crimes fueled by bitter prejudices or just plain evil that clings stubbornly to life. We should be well beyond such tragedies by now.
We can do better. We must. The brave leaders and foot soldiers who never lost faith in America teach us that. It’s a lesson worth remembering as we endure today’s challenges.
Andre Jackson, for the Editorial Board.