By Martin J. Holland
Despite being a Sunday, our last day of the study tour was as full and busy as the other days. We started our day visiting the Bethel Baptist Church, which was subject to three separate bomb attacks during the 1950’s and 1960’s. The first attack on the church and its pastor, the Rev. Fred Lee Shuttlesworth, occurred in the early hours of Christmas Day 1956. An explosive device made up of some nineteen sticks of dynamite was placed between the small alley between church and the parsonage, just mere feet from the bedroom of the pastor. The resulting explosion, while completely destroying the parsonage, left the reverend unharmed. The church sustained heavy damage, with all of its windows broken, and structural repairs required before services could be once again conducted. The attack on the church caused the congregation to establish a round the clock watch on the church and a security detail for their pastor, out of fear for his life. Such precautions proved wise as the church was again attacked in 1958, when another explosive device was left on the eastern side of the church. This time, thanks to the quick and brave actions of the guards, disaster was averted. The guards were able to defuse the majority of live explosives, and throw the remaining nine sticks of dynamite away from the church’s foundation into an adjacent, open field. The resulting explosion still smashed the windows of the church, but given the placement of the bomb, and the fifty-four sticks of dynamite that it originally contained, catastrophic structural damage that would have demolished the church was avoided. With this second attack on the church, local neighbors and members of other churches in Birmingham started to volunteer to augment the churches security. The last attack occurred when six sticks of dynamite were thrown from a speeding car, landing on the main entrance landing at the front of the church. Once again, there was significant damage to the church, but thankfully no loss of life.
Our hosts for the tour of Bethel Baptist were Mrs. Hightower and Deacon Stone, both long term members of the church, who held us riveted not only with their knowledge of these horrific attacks, but their incredible sense of optimism. Despite continual harassment by the police, and attacks on their church, they noted that a large majority of the congregation never waivered in their struggle for equality. While some members were open about their concern that the moral and political stance that the church was taking would “get them all killed”, the church did not abandon the cause, or lose members.
While Bethel Baptist Church building is currently in disrepair, they have already plans for a complete restoration that should get underway within the year. Members of the congregation built a larger church just a block away that is twice the size of the location we saw, and their numbers of the congregation continually grow. I was able to record a snippet of the oral history that Deacon Stone and Mrs. Hightower provided on my smart phone, which I have posted below in a movie format. Sorry for the poor quality of the audio.
Photo: The exterior of the church as it stands today. The parsonage used to stand directly adjacent to the western wall of the church that we see above.
This image, taken from A Walk To Freedom, The Reverend Fred Shuttlesworth and the Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights, 1956-1964 by the Birmingham Historical Society shows how close the parsonage was to the church. Reverend Fred Shuttlesworth is in the upper right hand of the photo.
The above photo, also from A Walk To Freedom, The Reverend Fred Shuttlesworth and the Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights, 1956-1964 by the Birmingham Historical Society shows the destruction of the first bombing against Bethel Baptist Church.
Photo of Mrs. Hightower and Deacon Stone.
After we left Bethel Baptist Church, we toured the predominately African American neighborhood nicknamed “Dynamite Hill”. It seems that those who were unwilling to recognize racial equality, and resorted to violence and intimidation were not below planting explosives at private residences. “Dynamite Hill” received its name from the seven separate attacks using explosives within the neighborhood in 1957 alone.
We left the neighborhood to go to the Sixteenth Avenue Church prior to their Sunday Service being held. The Church was under construction from 1909 through to 1911, and was designed by Wallace A. Rayfield and Company. It was also the site of a bombing in 1963, and unlike Bethel Baptist church, there were causalities from this terrible incident. Four young girls, Addie May Collins, Carol Denise McNair, Carole Rosmond Robertson, and Cynthia Diane Wesley were all killed when the ten sticks of dynamite planted by the Ku Klux Klan exploded during their Sunday school service.
In response to the attack, and the considerable anger that was felt by both black and white residents of Birmingham, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. stated: “We must not harbor the desire to retaliate with violence. The deaths may well serve as the redemptive force that brings light to this dark city.”
In 2008, the church established a memorial to the four girls.
The role of the Sixteenth Avenue Church within the struggle for civil rights cannot be overstated, and a key factor of that critical role had to do with the church’s physical location. Sixteenth Avenue was a racial dividing line within the city of Birmingham, and the church was directly on that invisible, but very real line that segregated blacks from whites. As a result, it became a natural starting point for protest marches, and in May of 1963 was the point of origin for the Children’s Crusade. The crusade was organized to show the world the extent of racial segregation within Birmingham, and how even young African American children would be arrested if they merely walked over to the southern side of Sixteenth Avenue into Kelly Ingram Park.
Photo: The Sixteenth Avenue Baptist Church.
Kelly Ingram Park was named after the first white sailor to perish in World War I, and while it was far removed from white neighborhoods, it was directly adjacent to a large African American neighborhood and business district. Despite of its location, it was on the other side of the color line, and forbidden to be used by Birmingham’s black community. To protest racial segregation, it was also the site for some of the most disturbing imagery to come out of the civil rights movement. White police with batons in hand met many of the protesters, as did snarling police dogs, water cannons, and tear gas. These troubling events are now all recognized in Kelly Ingram Park with the following memorials.
Photo: “Dogs”/ “Foot Solder Tribute”.
Photo:”Firehosing of demonstrators”
Photo: “Martin Luther King Jr. Monument”
Photo: “The Children’s March”
Photo:”Police Dog Attack”
We then had an hour or two to visit the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute located on the northeast side of Sixteenth Avenue. The Institute is a wonderful resource and places the visitor directly into the historical and cultural context of the early stages of the civil rights movement. The institute also has on display the jail cell where on the night of April 16, 1963 Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. pens his famous “Letter from the Birmingham Jail” which was a response to white clergy criticizing the efforts of the civil rights movement as “unwise and untimely”.
Our last destination for the tour was the 4th Avenue business district, which served as the economic and cultural center for African Americans in Birmingham. Predominately occupied with black owned businesses, it was much like Auburn Avenue in Atlanta, where monies generated within the district stayed within the area to help foster and reinforce economic opportunities for the black middle class. Arthur George Gaston, a wealthy and talented black entrepreneur, was directly responsible for at least four separate businesses within the district, including a hotel, radio station, insurance company and funeral home. The business district, like many downtown areas in many American cities, has unfortunately fallen upon tough times. Dr. Upton provided an incredible amount of detail to not only the architectural history of the buildings that we were seeing, but a rich and textured social history as well.
Photo of Dr. Upton in front of AG Gaston’s hotel.
Dinner was also a special occasion, as for our last night we were served a traditional southern dinner that included collard greens, fried chicken, sweet potatoes, macaroni and cheese. All of this feast was prepared by Chef Clayton Sherrod, who also treated us with a reflection of his own experiences growing up in Birmingham during the civil rights struggle, and how he soon learned that he could not remain silent when he saw injustice in the world and how he could not let others determine the course of his own life. The meal, and his presentation, were excellent.