Song From a Birmingham Church

By Tom Lee

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I began Tuesday night determined to avoid the news from Alabama.

I’ve worked on a U.S. Senate campaign. They’re rough. But never before had I seen one turn to the security policies of shopping malls, the dating habits of Joseph and Mary, and the explanation that a man, credibly accused of preying on young girls, was at least preferable to a member of an opposing political party.

Instead, I went to my office and put on Rhiannon Giddens’ “Freedom Highway,” her masterful tribute to the uniquely African-American struggle for identity, freedom, and significance. I expected her roots phrasing, a haunting sound that reaches from Africa through the West Indies straight to the Edmund Pettus Bridge. 

What I didn’t expect was Hammond B3, piano, round tones, and swelling choir:

Come round by my side and I'll sing you a song
Sing it so softly, it'll do no one wrong
Birmingham Sunday, the blood ran like wine
And the choirs kept singing of freedom

And, just as suddenly as Giddens’ version of Richard Farina’s “Birmingham Sunday” began, I was back in the news again — news from half a century ago.

Addie Mae Collins, Denise McNair, Cynthia Wesley, Carole Robertson — schoolgirls guilty of no sin greater than attending worship — died Sunday, September 15, 1963, in Birmingham’s 16th Street Baptist Church, consumed in the flames and flying shrapnel of a sheeted coward’s firebomb.

On Birmingham Sunday a noise shook the ground
And people all over the earth turned around
For no one recalled a more cowardly sound
And the choirs kept singing of freedom

The 16th Street Church bombing was no isolated incident. As Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. had written from his cell in the Birmingham jail five months earlier, “There have been more unsolved bombings of Negro homes and churches in Birmingham than in any other city in the nation.” King’s rejoinder to his pastoral brethren that “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere” fell largely on deaf ears. Like the others, the 16th Street bombing went nearly 50 years uninvestigated and unprosecuted. 

Until a lawyer named Doug Jones came along, doing what he thought was his job as the United States Attorney for the Northern District of Alabama. And the man who killed Denise, Cynthia, Carole, and Addie Mae went — finally — to prison.

It feels right somehow that the man who convicted the killer of those girls, whose very graves cried out for justice, will head to Washington from the Heart of Dixie as a United States Senator. If one could push past the charlatans and clown cars of the past six months, it would be enough to make one weep, late at night, when the music is low and the whiskey is in the glass.

Respectfully, however, that is white history and not a small plea for white absolution. 

History is a wiregrass mob of whites massacring seven unarmed blacks who came to vote at the Barbour County courthouse in 1874. And history is Doug Jones winning Barbour County, half black and half white, peacefully polled, with 3,680 votes.

History is beatings on the marches from Selma to Montgomery, administered upon government orders, specifically and brutally, to keep black folks from voting. And history is African-American women taking yesterday to social media, proudly displaying their “I VOTED” stickers.

History is Bull Connor and German shepherds, firebombs, and firehoses in Birmingham. And history is Jones winning Jefferson County, where the Magic City sits, by 38 points.

The Sunday has come and the Sunday has gone
And I can't do much more than to sing you a song
I'll sing it so softly, it'll do no one wrong
And the choirs keep singing of freedom

Addie Mae Collins.
Denise McNair. 

Cynthia Wesley.

Carole Robertson.

We didn’t hear about them on the news Tuesday night. We heard about pedophilia, and Donald Trump, and the 2018 midterms. But if you wanted to know why last night happened, you shouldn’t have watched the news in the first place. 

The answer, dear reader, lies neither in our stars nor our politics, but in ourselves, our history, and those four little girls, dead all these years, judging us from their graves.