Fifty years ago this week I picked up my hometown newspaper and read the front-page story. I was a high school senior at the time, and I remember feeling vaguely troubled by what I read. But I was not incensed, enraged, or emboldened. I wish now I had been courageous enough to feel and express the horror and deep sadness that members of the African-American community must have been feeling that weekend.
The paper told the story of the Sunday morning bombing of a Baptist church in Birmingham, Alabama, just three hours down the highway from my hometown, Chattanooga, Tennessee. That act of terrorism took the lives of four young girls, ages 11 to 14, who were attending Sunday school. Twenty-two others were injured in the bombing.
I was a high school senior at the time. Unlike those four children who were murdered in Birmingham, my life went on pretty much uninterrupted. Those four young girls, Denise McNair, Cynthia Wesley, Carole Robertson, and Addie Mae Collins, never reached their senior year of high school. They never got to attend college. They never got to marry and enjoy rearing families of their own. They never got to pursue their dreams. If they had lived, they would be in their sixties now.
As shocking and tragic as it was, I do not remember the incident being a topic of much conversation among my acquaintances at the all-white high school I attended. I do not remember prayers being offered in my home church for the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church or for the families of the girls. I do not remember anyone in my world at that time trying to reach across the racial divide in Chattanooga to express solidarity and sympathy with our black neighbors across town.
This weekend my heart is asking, “Why not?” How could I have been so tolerant of intolerance? How could I have been so insensitive to the racism that was an evil fact of life in the world of my youth? Why did I not challenge the institutionalized prejudice that was embedded in white society? Why did I not recognize that obedience to God required me to love my neighbors as myself?
Theologically, the answer is obvious. It is one more proof of my sinfulness and selfishness. I am thankful that God in Christ has forgiven me.
I am thinking about this on September 15, 2013. I am thinking that this is a fiftieth anniversary I should remember. I want to remember it with the hope that our nation makes progress in respecting racial and cultural differences. I want to remember the date by praying for our city, especially for our urban schools. I want the date to remind me of the promise we make to our own Sunday school children, that “red or yellow or black or white,” they are all precious to Jesus. I want to live in a way that proves that promise to be true.