Reverend Dr. Michael W. Waters Senior Pastor, Joy Tabernacle AME Church, Dallas
DALLAS– “Déjà vu, tell you what I’m gonna do, when they reminisce over you, my God.” — “They Reminisce Over You (T.R.O.Y.),” Pete Rock and CL Smooth, 1992
Fifty years ago, on Sept. 15, 1963, 10:22 a.m., a bomb ripped through the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church of Birmingham, Ala., moments before Sunday morning worship was to commence. In the blast’s wake, four young girls — Addie Mae Collins (age 14), Cynthia Wesley (age 14), Carole Robertson (age 14), and Denise McNair (age 11) — lay dead. Twenty-two others would sustain injuries. One of the most heinous crimes committed in an era ripe full of them, the death of innocents and the utter disregard for the sacredness of a house of worship resulted in an international outcry.
Though the story is well-documented, often lost in the historicity of this tragedy is its enduring humanity: those left behind to grieve and mourn life lost and security disturbed. That day, parents lost their children, siblings their sisters, and a faith community, for years to come, peace of mind. Enter the Collins family. On that fateful day in September 1963, possibly no family suffered more than they did. A family living in poverty, not only did they lose Addie Mae. Another child, Sarah, lost an eye. A third child escaped the blast with her physical life intact, but for decades her life would remain on emotional life support.
Junie Collins Williams, then 16, narrowly escaped death and injury through sheer fate and obedience. When instructed by an elder to leave from the church’s downstairs lobby and return upstairs, she did not hesitate. She had piano-playing duties on that Sunday, which was Youth Sunday. Moments later, the bomb exploded. Four bodies, including that of her sister, were later discovered lying on top of each other under the rubble where the women’s restroom had once stood. Mrs. Williams was later given the horrific task of identifying her baby sister’s body, which proved difficult to fulfill. The blast had so damaged Addie Mae’s body and disfigured her face that it had rendered her unrecognizable. Mrs. Williams was able to make a positive identification based only on her recognition of the shoes still adorning the corpse’s feet.
I had the distinct pleasure of meeting Mrs. Williams after a lecture she delivered in Dallas. After decades of silence, struggling with her tragic loss and literally struggling to maintain her sanity, she has begun to share her eyewitness account of the tragedy. During her lecture, Mrs. Williams spoke vividly of the terror, anger, and hatred that sought to consume her in the years following the bombing. She also spoke of her Christian faith as the lifeline that sustained her will to live and as the reason she no longer carries that terror, anger, and hatred in her heart today.
During the question-and-answer period following her lecture, I stood to pose a question to Mrs. Williams. Having traveled throughout the Deep South, and having made pilgrimage to many of the historic Civil Rights era sites that she referenced in her lecture, I made reference to a stone monument erected in Selma, Ala., at the foot of the Edmund Pettus Bridge. There, on March 7, 1965, 600 peaceful marchers departed from Brown Chapel African Methodist Episcopal Church only to be met by mounted state troopers armed with horse whips, tear gas, and cattle prods. Engraved upon the monument is a powerful imperative lifted directly from the ancient scrolls of Hebrew scripture: “When your children shall ask you in time to come, saying, ‘What mean these 12 stones,’ then you shall tell them how you made it over” (paraphrase of Josh. 4:21-22).
Briefly, I glanced down to behold the face of my then 4-year-old son, who had knelt at his seat and was playing, silently, near my feet. I then asked Mrs. Williams what she would have my generation tell our children and future generations about her generation’s experience. Without hesitation Mrs. Williams responded, “Tell them about the great sacrifice their ancestors made to bring them to where they are today. … And tell them that is was God who brought us over!”
Fifty years removed, the memory of this tragedy still brings deep sorrow. Yet, empowered by her imperative, it is our sacred duty to tell Mrs. Williams’ story, to tell the story of Addie Mae, Cynthia, Carole, and Denise, and to tell the stories of countless others whose voices have now fallen silent. We must tell their story for it is America’s story. We must tell our children and future generations that they now reap the harvest of seeds of sacrifice sown in blood, watered with sweat, and nurtured by tears. We must tell them about a people who — though persecuted and oppressed, marginalized and molested — propelled our nation toward true democracy.
Disturbingly, these types of tragedies, wherein innocent life is taken with racist fury, still befall us. Yet, we shall always remember those whose great courage in the face of tremendous odds, empowered by their faith in God, helped to change our nation. We must never forget. We must reminisce over our tumultuous past, for when we do, we, too, reminisce over the God who brought us, and who is still bringing us, over! Rest in peace, sweet angels.