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History: Are We Accurately Remembering Birmingham or Being Selective?

By Robert Stitt

Most adults in America have heard of Dr. King’s “I have a dream” speech. Granted, most have never heard more than that line and can’t detail much else about the speech, the ministry, or the man. Dr. King gave a lot of great speeches, and they were not just an eloquent group of words. When he spoke, he spoke for purpose and with meaning. Consider this excerpt:

“They are the martyred heroines of a holy crusade for freedom and human dignity. And so this afternoon in a real sense they have something to say to each of us in their death… They say to us that we must be concerned not merely about who murdered them, but about the system, the way of life, the philosophy which produced the murderers. Their death says to us that we must work passionately and unrelentingly for the realization of the American dream.”     – Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

If you don’t know the context of these words, you are not alone. Many people have not only forgotten them, they’ve also forgotten the people for whom they were written and spoken. On September 15, 1963, a bomb exploded during Sunday morning service at the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama. Four young girls were killed and many others were injured. It was later discovered that 15 sticks of dynamite were placed in the church basement under what would later turn out to be the girls’ bathroom.  At 10:19 am, it exploded killing 14-year old Cynthia Wesley, 14-year old Carole Robertson, 14-year old Addie Mae Collins, and 11-year old Denise McNair.

Rev. Ruth Hawley-Lowry writes in the Huffington Post, “This bombing happened only a few weeks after the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. The fear around the March closed down the city of Washington, D.C. because white leadership incorrectly presumed that a majority black gathering would not be peaceful. Even now, five decades later, people so easily quote Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream” — but we fail to remember Dr. King’s words earlier in his homiletical speech when he said, “America has given the Negro people a bad check, a check which has come back marked ‘insufficient funds.'”

We would like to think that times have changed. Surely, if such a thing happened today we would not be so quick to forget. But how many of us think about the 9 black Bible study members brutally murdered at Mother Emanuel AME Church just 3 months ago?

Hawley-Lowry adds, “We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed.”

As we enter into the presidential campaign season, let’s not forget that there is more at stake than a border with Mexico or an LGBT agenda. There is more to be heard in the campaigns than low job numbers or student loan debt. All of these will be addressed by the candidate willing to stand for equality, justice, and the heart of Dr. King’s dream. Let’s keep looking forward, but not at the expense of forgetting the past.

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