My feelings regarding the weekend of September 15, 2013
Events leading up to this past week, with so much emphasis on the bombing and murder of my Sunday School friends on September 15, 1963, have brought about very uncomfortable feelings to me of an extremely painful time of my life. I have been constantly reminded of that day when the church shook and I was splattered with glass that was shattered from the blast just a few feet from where several of my Sunday school classmates and I were. It has been very difficult constantly being reminded every day of the event. I am glad it is finally over.
Today, when people experience tragic, horrific events in their lives, they are offered counseling to help them make it through, especially schoolchildren. We were offered nothing. Even over the years it has appeared that no one has really cared about the children that survive that event. It was as if we were simply told, “Though people may have tried to kill you today, go home, get some rest, get up tomorrow and act as though things are okay.” For some of us things were not okay.
No one understood PTSD – post-traumatic stress disorder – in 1963. No one understood or even thought about the effects of attempted murder on the young minds of Sunday School children. No one thought about the explosion of reality when a child has to face the murder of his friends in a house of worship of God.
I had no way of knowing that 50 years later, in this city, where seemingly the bombing was sanctioned by the authorities, the authorities would sanction a commemorative memorial that would explode upon my consciousness feelings that I had buried in 1963. Yet, I have come to realize I am not the only one that has been experiencing hurt.
On Saturday night, September 14, 2013, we had a panel discussion of some of the survivors that were children in the church in 1963 and are now adults. It was my desire for that event to be a healing event for those that are still alive. I pray that maybe in some way this was successful.
The following is a link to an article published in the Birmingham News and AL.com from a writer who observed what we did:
“Addie Mae’s ring: ‘I told her I lost it’… Children who survived church bombing recall guilt, pain, going back to school Monday morning,” By Greg Garrison, AL.com, September 16, 2013, updated September 18, 2013. http://www.al.com/living/index.ssf/2013/09/addies_ring_church_bombing_sur.html
Bishop Jim Lowe’s September 2013 interview with a reporter regarding the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church bombing:
How many children and adults survived the bombing?
I don’t know. However, we are expecting at least 20 of the children that survived, that are now adults, to be at our church on September 14. It is the first gathering of survivors to honor them. For us, the survivors, this reunion will be a much-needed and anticipated time of healing.
Where were you at 10:22 a.m. September 15, 1963?
I was in a Sunday School room two to three doors down from where the bomb was placed that killed the four girls.
What do you recall about the event?
At the time, I was with several of my other Sunday School classmates. I remember very clearly, we were holding small American flags in our hands and mock parading around one of the classroom tables. We were poking fun at our then Governor George Wallace. Each one of us took turns at making jokes about his school house stand to block the entrance of Blacks at the University of Alabama. We talked about how he was humiliated by the federal government and he had to move out of the way. I don’t remember any of the words but I know they were not kind words that we spoke about George Wallace. We did not like him.
As we were making fun of him, all of a sudden, I remember a loud deafening noise and seeing glass flying out of the windows to my left. Instinctively, I turned my back and shielded my head with my arms to protect myself from whatever it was that was happening. From that moment on I lost an awareness of my friends that were in the room. It was as if a dark cloud had enveloped me. I could see but just a few feet ahead of me. There was the sound of ringing in my ears and of muffled voices yelling and screaming of which I could make no sense. I had no idea of what was happening nor concept of how much time I was in the room or in the building itself.
When I exited the room I saw a great cloud of dust and/or smoke. Directly in front of me I saw one of the Sunday School teachers crouched under a table with her arms embracing my younger 5 year old sister. I could see the fear on their faces and in both of their eyes. Seeing them crouching, and having seen many war movies, I responded like I saw in the movies and ducked low also to the floor. I knew there was some type of danger but I didn’t know what it was.
My next thought was for my other sister. If there was some type of danger, where was she? I began looking around to see if I could find her to see if she too was okay. To this day, I don’t know where it was that I did see her, but upon finding her I had done what I felt I should have done. Then, I began looking to see if there was anyone else that might have been in trouble or needing help. Finding none, I exited the church.
Upon getting to the lower outside of the church, my next observation was seeing the policemen and many people gathering around. It seems to me that I have a memory of the police roping off the area but it is with confidence I remember my thoughts of “How did they get here so fast? Was it a fire? Was it some type of electrical accident? Did a boiler explode?” I had no idea of what was going on. As I stood near the door of the church someone came up to me and told me I was bleeding from my back. He asked me if I was okay. I told him yes and then I noticed that I was also bleeding from cuts on my left arm. I don’t remember being in pain.
As I stood outside pondering what had just happened, I heard voices of many people crying, wailing and shouting but then, distinctively I heard the voice of my mother crying out my name. “Jimmy! Jimmy! Oh Jimmy!” I turned to see her coming towards me, dressed in what looked like a house robe and her house shoes, with tears in her eyes. Feeling the obvious anxiousness and agony yet relief in her voice as she embraced me continually crying my name, I uncontrollably began to cry. It was then that I began to sense the type of danger that I had been in.
As she continued to hug me tightly, my father came up and asked had I seen my sisters? I told him Betty and Leria were okay. I still to this day can feel my mother’s cries of relief when I made that statement. To this day I still choke up remembering her voice.
It is at that point that my memory goes dark. I remember very little after that. I don’t remember how I got home but I do remember being told to stay in the bed. I was in the bed when I heard my mother and father along with my aunt in the other room listening to the radio. I could not hear what was being said on the radio but I will never forget the cries of my mom, and my aunt as they listened to the news and the reality of what had happened to those four girls.
How did you physically survive? Were you injured?
Yes, I was injured but not in a life-threatening manner. The scars on my arm healed but I still have feelings on my back of places where I was cut that itch from time to time. Whether this has anything to do with the bombing or not, I cannot be sure.
How did the event impact your life emotionally, spiritually, and in other ways?
I came to grips with the reality of the depravity of mankind and the evilness of the heart of man. How could people be so vicious and so hateful that they would place a bomb in a church and then set that bomb at a time to go off when innocent children were in Sunday School?
Good is relative. Did not the people that planted the bomb think it was good for their cause? Are not wars started and fought by good men on the premise that their causes are right and just?
I have often heard the statement about the goodness of mankind. I don’t believe in that. The bombing taught me by firsthand experience of the hatred and inhumanity of man toward his fellow man. I became cynical regarding this life and the ability of man to deal righteously with his brother.
However, the bombing and the deaths of the four girls did turn me in the direction of listening to hear the Holy Spirit. It encouraged me to start doing things that would change the hearts of mankind. It is in the heart where the evil resides and unless the heart is changed by a personal relation with Almighty God through Christ Jesus no change will occur. Today, I do not look for good in any man, I look for the God in him.
How does the event you lived through impact you today?
I have a desire in my heart to do all I can to help people to come to a true sincere love and respect of one another and deal with differences in such a way that tragedies like this will never have to occur again.
What do you do today?
I am a minister of the gospel message of Jesus Christ.
What are your thoughts about those who died? Did their deaths have meaning?
They became martyrs. And like the early martyrs of the church, their deaths started a movement, a movement for change that could not be stopped.
How can we honor their memories?
These were four young innocent girls. We can honor their memories by recognizing that any time there is hatred of any human being, there is the unpleasant reality that even the innocent will be hurt. We can honor them by learning to overcome our biases and hatred of one another and learn to forgive and allow God to administer true righteous judgment.
How big an impact did the bombing at your church have on America in terms of turning the corner on the effort for civil rights?
That explosion ignited an even greater explosion. An explosive movement that changed the heart of a nation.
How important is forgiveness, not only in relation to this bombing, but for civil rights and for the future of our nation? Explain the process of forgiveness in your own life.
Forgiveness is crucial. If we do not forgive, how can we ourselves expect to be forgiven? The great physical danger of unforgiveness is if we do not forgive then we ourselves are subject to commit acts of atrocity as grievous as those committed against us.
Forgiveness is crucial because it is the first step towards our own healing.
Why is the 50th anniversary observance of the Birmingham bombing so important to America?
As human beings we celebrate certain milestones such as 25th, 50th and 100th year anniversaries. It’s at these times when people often stop, look back, assess where they have come from, where they are, and are hopefully better able to aim in the direction they want to go to accomplish their goal.
Is our nation where it should be in terms of civil rights for all races and ethnicities?
No, we still have much to do. But again, no real change will occur before change occurs in the minds and hearts of people. We must begin to look inward at the integrity of the heart of people and not outward at the color of one’s skin, economic background or nationality.
What do you hope will be a positive outcome of the 50th anniversary observance?
That men and women who have come together for this observance will learn a new-found respect for one another as human beings created equal by the same God. Then move forward working together to affect a better future for our next generation.
What will your church be doing to honor those who died, as well as the survivors? Why is this important?
We will have a Prayer, Praise and Worship Service. We will bring pastors of all races together in a city that has been known for separation and racial strife to join hands together in love with jubilation to the glory of God in Christ Jesus.
On September 14 we will have:
- A Unity Luncheon with pastors of all races and denominations at noon
- An evening Prayer, Praise and Worship service for survivors, 6 p.m.
- A panel discussion where survivors discuss and share their experiences, 6 p.m.
On September 15 we will have a Sunday morning worship service at 9 a.m. to honor both victims and survivors.
Bishop Jim Lowe wrote this reflection on the 50th anniversary of the church bombing for Kids in Birmingham 1963. The interview was conducted by a reporter and is shared here with Bishop Lowe’s permission.