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During Black History Month, civil rights activists reflect on pattern of change after tragedy

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Posted at 4:29 PM, Feb 02, 2021
and last updated 2021-02-02 16:29:26-05

BIRMINGHAM, Ala. — Church administrator Lemar Washington says 16th Street Baptist Church has a powerful history.

“This church was organized in 1873 as the first colored church in Birmingham,” Washington said.

Its history is also painful.

“During the civil rights disturbances and civil rights marches here, the idea was to take the grievances from the African American community to city hall – and it’s only three blocks away,” Washington said.

The church was used as the meeting place for protesters, making it a target for hatred.

“On the 15th of September, which was on a Sunday, the bomb went off,” Washington said. “Seventeen sticks of dynamite blast this side of the wall into the girl’s bathroom and the five girls were in the bathroom.”

One survived, but four were killed.

“The church has a gigantic hole in the side of the building," Washington said. "The African American community – not only here in Birmingham but across the country – has a gigantic hole in its heart.”

The tragedy grabbed the attention of the entire world. Civil rights activists say it sparked national leaders to make a change, leading to the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

“I think that was one of those defining moments for the civil rights movement because it galvanized the nation, it made the nation pay attention and it actually made the world pay attention and people were thinking ‘how horrible was that’,” Dr. Paulette Patterson Dilworth said.

Dr. Paulette Patterson Dilworth is the vice president for diversity, equity and inclusion at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. She grew up just south of Birmingham in Selma and was 13 at the time of the bombing.

“For us, the question was always whether or not our church was going to be next,” Dr. Dilworth said.

She says what was happening back in the 1960s is not too different from what we’re seeing today.

“Think of it this way... There’ve been other Black men killed since George Floyd and those killings have been just as questionable," Dr. Dilworth said. "But have they been broadcasted over the news as much as that incident? No. And the idea is that there’s an expectation that these things quiet down and we go back to our normal way of existing, or co-existing, or attempting to.”

Dr. Dilworth and Washington say the country refuses to address the issue of race and we’re still seeing systemic disparities today.

“It’s been 55 plus years since the bombing of 16th Street Baptist Church and generations have passed and died," Washington said. "But the issue of race has not passed away and died.”

Dr. Dilworth says the answer to freedom, equality and liberty for all people isn’t simple, but it can start with education and each person striving to be inclusive in their own lives and careers.

“The people who basically get it are doing something," Dr. Dilworth said. "It’s the people who don’t get it. And the question then comes ‘how do you reach that group of people,’ kind of like the people who stormed the capitol.”

In his life experience, Washington says he’s been taught if there’s a will there’s a way.

“I spent 30 years in the Army and our country can accomplish anything if we want to accomplish it – we put a man on the moon,” Washington said.

Dr. Dilworth is hopeful this country can be inclusive of all people accepting and respecting each other’s differences.

“We need to stop making the existence of people’s humanity a political issue,” Dr. Dilworth said.

Due to the pandemic, Washington says 16th Street Baptist Church is struggling financially. If you'd like to support the church, donate here.