Birmingham, U.S. leaders reflect on past, renew focus on progress at Sixteenth Street Baptist Church memorial
BIRMINGHAM, Alabama - No matter who took the podium Sunday to address the wall-to-wall crowd at Sixteenth Street Baptist Church, the message was the same - progress has been made, but don't become complacent. Keep working toward equality. Remember the past, but look toward the future.
The church was so crowded for the Community Memorial Service that overflowing attendees filled nearby Kelly Ingram Park to watch the proceedings that were broadcast on several large screens.
More than 1,500 people - from average citizens to community, state and national leaders - gathered 50 years later to honor the memories of six black children who died in Birmingham on Sept. 15, 1963, and the six families who paid an enormous price for freedom.
Addie Mae Collins, Denise McNair, Carole Robertson and Cynthia Wesley died when several Ku Klux Klan members planted a bomb in the church's basement. Sarah Collins Rudolph, who lost her older sister and her right eye, was also honored during the service.
Virgil Ware and Johnny Robinson, both young black boys, were shot to death in separate incidents the same day of the bombing.
To demonstrate the difference 50 years makes, speakers shared memories of 1960s Birmingham, some quoting activists like Martin Luther King Jr. and the Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth. Several Birmingham ministers read Bible passages and led prayers.
The Rev. Andrew Young, a civil rights activist and former U.N. ambassador, recalled a meeting among King and other leaders of the black community, who unsuccessfully tried to convince King that Birmingham was a lost cause.
He told of Eugene "Bull" Connor's callous order that dogs be turned loose and powerful hoses be used to disperse a crowd of civil rights activists; of the Easter Sunday march when King was incarcerated; of the changes in Birmingham encouraging progress in South Africa.
Others mentioned more recent events, such as the Supreme Court's decision on the Voting Rights Act and allegations of segregation within the greek system at the University of Alabama.
U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder assured the crowd, to resounding applause, that he remains dedicated to prosecuting perpetrators of hate crimes, ensuring no Americans face discrimination when voting and creating alternatives for incarceration.
"We must not - and will not - stand by and allow the slow unraveling of the progress for which so many have sacrificed so much," he said.
Holder emphasized that every day U.S. citizens fight against hatred, violence and bigotry, despite progress inspired by the sacrifices of many people over the years.
"It's important that we mark the anniversaries of this and other milestones - from Selma, to Birmingham, to Tuscaloosa, to the March on Washington - not because we wish to dwell on an imperfect past, but because, like the heroes who once stood in these pews and took to this city's streets - braving threats, beatings, fire hoses, dogs, bullets, and bombs - we, too, love this great country," he said.
While Holder's speech was met with standing ovations and cheers, the most resounding applause came when the Rev. Arthur Price, pastor of Sixteenth Street Baptist, recognized about a dozen foot soldiers scattered throughout the crowd.
U.S. Rep. Terri Sewell invited the families of each of the six children killed that day to stand, recognizing that without their sacrifice she and many other black politicians wouldn't be in office today.
"Because four little black girls from Birmingham were killed, another little black girl from Selma now gets to walk the halls of Congress," Sewell said.
She said people now should not simply bemoan past violence but should be empowered to pursue progress.
"Just as they spoke to us 50 years ago in their death they are speaking to us today," she said. "What will we, the Joshua generation, do? What will you, the millennial generation, do? It is not enough to just reflect. We must rededicate ourselves to the movement and the cause for which they died."
Alabama Gov. Robert Bentley noted the importance of the Sunday school lesson of Sept. 15, 1963, called "A Love That Forgives" - a lesson preached again this morning by the Rev. Arthur Price.
"It strikes me that during such turbulent times - in a church that served as a staging point for peaceful protestors - that while bombing, killings, beatings and humiliations had been perpetrated upon its very own people - this church chose to teach love and Forgiveness," Bentley said.
Birmingham Mayor William Bell listed successes such as advances in education and the influx of minority-owned businesses, driving each point home with a cry of "Ain't God a good God!"
"I know we could've all turned to bitterness and anger but those families showed that love was in their heart," Bell said.
"All the scars we have on us, we're peeling them off today," Bell said.
Today, though, Birmingham faces renewed challenges, with children who deny themselves an education and the criminals who are content to sit in jail instead of contributing to society, Bell said.
"What will Birmingham look like - what will Alabama look like - what will our nation look like 50 years forward? That's up to its people," Bentley said.
Though slated to speak, former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice was absent from the afternoon's proceedings.
The mayor's top aide Chuck Faush said that she was called away at the last minute, but that she participated in many other events throughout the weekend.
"We're very grateful for her participation, as we are for all the people who participated and also those who participated in the call for rededication," Faush said.
AL.com Staff Writer Kent Faulk contributed to this report