, Salem, MA


September 14, 2013

Shribman: Young martyrs to freedom


Only days before the Birmingham incident, King had spoken of Alabama and its “vicious racists, with its governor having his lips dripping with the words of interposition and nullification,” and indeed only a week before the bombing Gov. George C. Wallace had remarked that Alabama needed a “few first-class funerals” to stop integration. After the bombing, King wired the governor, saying “the blood of four little children ... is on your hands,” adding: “Your irresponsible and misguided actions have created in Birmingham and Alabama the atmosphere that has induced continued violence and now murder.”

But Wallace, who had been defeated at the schoolhouse door earlier that year, when federal marshals enforced integration at the University of Alabama, suffered another defeat in September. The bombing and the funerals they produced did not stop the integration of the Birmingham schools.

The church, which King had used as a meeting place for his marches against segregation in Birmingham, has entered American history as a landmark in the fight for freedom, along with Boston’s Old North Church, where the one-if-by-land, two-if-by-sea message was flashed to freedom fighters of a different age.

The prominence of houses of worship in the story of freedom — we might add the many scores that produced foot soldiers in the social-gospel movement and the battle for civil rights — is a poignant reminder of perhaps King’s most sorrowful but stinging observation, the truth, evident even today, that the most segregated hour of the week is 11 a.m. on Sunday morning.

The year 2013 has been unusually rich with commemorations. There were the 150th anniversaries of the Emancipation Proclamation and the Battle of Gettysburg, and in November arrives the sesquicentennial of the Gettysburg Address. And there were the 50th anniversaries of so many 1963 landmarks: Lyndon Johnson’s speech at Gettysburg that foreshadowed the Civil Rights Act, the confrontation at the University of Alabama and John F. Kennedy’s speech recognizing the black struggle as a moral struggle — as well as King’s “dream” speech and the Birmingham bombings.

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