Fifty years ago, a depraved and savage crime rocked the civil rights movement: the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama.
But rather than succumb to fear, the movement held together and marched forward to the passage of the Voting Rights Act and the Civil Rights Act.
We owe that movement, and the four girls who lost their lives on Sept. 15, 1963, our eternal gratitude.
At 10:22 a.m. on that overcast Sunday morning, a box of dynamite with a time delay -- set by four men from the United Klans of American -- exploded under the steps of the church near the basement. The church had been a hub of civil rights activity in a city so infected with prejudice that it was known as Bombingham.
Of the 26 children who were in the basement changing into choir robes, four of them died: 14-year-old Cynthia Wesley, 14-year-old Carole Robertson, 14-year-old Adie Mae Collins and 11-year-old Denise McNair. The title of the preacher's sermon that morning was to have been "The Love That Forgives."
The public response was rapid. Newspaper editorials lifted the subject out of Alabama and into the hands of Americans who thought they had no skin in this fight.
"For the rest of the nation, the Birmingham church bombing should serve to goad the conscience," an eloquent editorial Milwaukee Sentinel said. "They [the girls] can only be atoned by having everybody on all sides resolve to continue on in the search for human dignity."
But have we fully atoned?
It's hard to say, really.
Economically, there is still a wide divide in wages.
We still segregate by neighborhood and worship the same God in separate churches.
Why does the sword of justice appear to slice so hard at blacks, Latinos and the poor, particularly for drug crimes?
Is the education gap something that cannot be closed, or do we just not care?
In the Episcopal Church, there is a prayer where one asks for forgiveness not just for things done but also for things left undone.
In wondering about atonement and the search for human dignity 50 years later, we need to turn now to the things still undone.
Fred McKissack Jr. is a writer based in Indiana. His latest book is Best Shot in the West: The Adventures of Nat Love (Chronicle, 2012). He can be reached at email@example.com.
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