On the quiet Sunday of Sept. 15, 1963, Sunday school had just finished at the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama. Addie Mae Collins, Cynthia Wesley, Carole Robertson and Carol Denise McNair were ready to return home, but sadly they never made it home that day. Fifteen sticks of dynamite were tied to a timing device on the east side of the Baptist Church, a place that had been the sight of heavy civil rights action. The Klu Klux Klan and their fringe group, “Cahaba Boys,” who took responsibility for the attack, viewed it as something to parade while outrage spread across the globe.
Fifty-four years later, the 16th St. Baptist Church bombing was the subject of a discussion held at the International Civil Rights Center & Museum in co-sponsorship with a non-profit called The Movement Inc. “This is a creative space for learning and teaching,” said Bo Motley, an educator and the founder of The Movement Inc., as he invited discussion panel members up to the stage.
“We hope that those attending can go to their communities and put together some type of plan of action so therefore they can set a goal and achieve it,” said Motley. The auditorium lay silent but attentive as the panelists took their spots.
The discussion was over two hours long and consisted of questions by Motley himself as he acted as the moderator. The panel was made up of Pastor Greg Clark from Church of the Cross, Dr. Daran Mitchell from Trinity AME Zion Church and the President of the Pulpit Forum, Reverend Randell Keeny from St. Barnabas Episcopal Church and Jessica Turner, an ACLU Faith & Community Engagement Coordinator.
The first question was about citizen expectations and trust on faith-based institutions when it comes to civil liberties. The panelists shifted in their chairs as they pondered the question. “Let me take a stab at this,” Clark said as he raised his hand slightly.
Clark made a personal reference of a time when he challenged his higher-ups about not focusing on and being part of the civil rights movement. “One of them came up to me one time and said, ‘the problem with you boy, is that you read the bible and you believed it,’” said Clark.
Chuckles filled the auditorium as he continued with comparisons that stood out to many there. “The same words were used to describe Nat Turner whenever he led the slave rebellion. He saw that Moses was a liberator, that Jesus was a liberator…Being a liberator is something that we have to teach,” said Clark. People shook their heads in agreement as the word ‘liberator’ rang hopeful between the aisles.
“Expectations differ from place to place,” said Mitchell, “I came to Greensboro from Brooklyn, New York…It all depends on what the needs of the people in which they live truly are.”
The next question posed was about the roles of faith-based institutions when focused on the civil rights movement. Turner turned to the audience with pensive eyes. “Rather than just knowing the idea of being a Christian, we need to live it out rather than just learn about it,” said Turner.
After Mitchell asked if the question could be repeated, Keeny took the question and began to deconstruct it, giving examples from other religions besides Christianity of how to truly integrate ideas and beliefs into our daily lives, reaching as far back as the execution of Jesus. “Jesus was killed because he was bold enough to challenge religious and political power…we must remember to keep the image of who he was and not try to make him into something he was not,” said Keeny.
The questions that followed narrowed the discussion to how faith-based institutions interacted with the community and how the community itself will and should engage. Pastor Clark said that he believes that faith-based institutions must be mentors and set examples. Clark has had run-ins with the law multiple times but not because he “broke the law,” he said, but because “I stepped up.”
Mitchell echoed the hardships of standing up and interacting with a community that may sometimes not like what they, as a faith-based institution, are doing. “It is going to be crop-plot work, it is not going to finish in a hurry,” said Mitchell. Clashes with the law are not the only time when tensions rise. The actions of a faith-based institution sometimes frustrate even the church-goers themselves. “We took a woman into sanctuary in May,” Keeny confessed.
Back in late May, Ortega was ordered by the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) to leave the country and did not grant her a stay of removal. “No one dissented from bringing her into sanctuary, but I know there were those folks that didn’t like the idea,” said Keeny. It is still unclear whether ICE will forcibly remove her, but Keeny is sure that even those who quietly disagree will help Ortega.
For Turner, combating a split and divided society with the help of faith-based institution is going to take what she called a “rapid response.”
“When moments that can literally change history are happening…we have to be there and stand with them,” said Turner.
After the discussion was finished, Motley moved the focus from the panel to the audience and began a Q&A. The room stayed quiet until a small woman stood up slowly but with passion in her eyes. “No, no, no. I do not need a microphone.” Dr. Mazie Butler Ferguson, a lawyer, pastor and counselor, said over her glasses as her hands held each other with authority, “This is great. This has been wonderful but there is a group of people that is missing and that continue to be missing from this conversation.”
Her voice was ripe with emotion. Ferguson harked back to a time when she was teaching people how to pass the constitutional test to be able to vote and registered people to vote back in 1963 in Georgetown, South Carolina. At the time, there were Klu Klux Klan members in town, and they sent her a message. “They said they were going to kill me,” said Ferguson as a pause washed over the attentive audience. “This was Saturday; they said that if I was still in town by Sunday, they would kill me.” They called for the FBI and spoke to the local sheriff, Ferguson continued, “[The sheriff] happened to be the grand dragon of the Klu Klux Klan, but the FBI left. Ex-convicts and people who were in jail got together, and they made zip guns out of coat hangers.” They stayed up all night long to make sure that she was safe. She made a point to say that these people did not have degrees or churches but they had, “in their spirit,” that they wanted to participate. Ferguson jumped from there to actions taken by authorities in the last 20 years against her, “The chairman of my deacon board worked at the country club, and at the country club, he was told that you need to get rid of that woman!”
She looked over her glasses to every bewildered eye in the room. “Our audience is in the street!” Ferguson said, “Our audience is in prison! Our audience is in schools…being told stuff that does not make sense and is not consistent with what they see!” Ferguson finished with compliments to the panel and sat slowly, leaving the room empowered and clapping with joy that those who listened could hear her story.
After a few more comments and questions, Motley handed the microphone over to John Swain, the CEO of the International Civil Rights Center & Museum, who thanked everyone for coming and welcomed everyone to tour the museum.