I had nightmares about the three coffins

Freeman Hrabowski

Freeman Hrabowski

Age 13 in 1963

On losing a good friend and classmate, Cynthia Wesley, when her church was bombed in September 1963 – and on the power young people have to change their own lives and make a positive impact on the lives of others.

In the fall of 1963, we were shocked by the vicious and cowardly bombing of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church, one of Birmingham’s most prominent African American churches. We soon learned that four innocent young African American girls had been killed; I was devastated to hear that one of them was a good friend and classmate, Cynthia. I’ll never forget that Sunday morning in church at Sixth Avenue Baptist, when our minister, Reverend Porter, announced that our sister church had been bombed. Congregation members immediately left their seats, in a state of shock, because our relatives and friends belonged to that church.Freeman Hrabowski Age 12 cln

For years following the funeral, I had nightmares about the three coffins (one family had a separate funeral) in the front of the church, with the smallest one, placed in the middle, containing the remains of the youngest girl, Denise McNair. As Dr. King delivered the eulogy, I realized that as much as our parents and elders cared for us, they could not protect us from the horrors of racism, which raged like a fire. We grew up witnessing the bombing not only of churches but of homes belonging to people like Reverend A.D. King, Dr. King’s brother, and the most prominent Black attorney in town, Arthur Shores.

Despite the terror, it was encouraging to know that people throughout the country were deeply troubled by the events in Birmingham, and that the nation’s President, John Kennedy, was on our side. We learned from the experience that faith in God and ourselves, coupled with individual acts of courage and service, meant far more than we could ever realize.

A significant lesson from studying the role of youth during the 1960s is how important it is for young people both to evaluate their life circumstances and to know that they are not simply victims of those circumstances. They can change their own lives, and, equally important, can have a positive impact on the lives of others. It is true that African Americans have made much progress over the past three decades; nevertheless, lunch counters, restaurants, and schools still are often closed to millions of Black children and their families simply because they lack the resources or the skills to go there. Most important, like the children of the Civil Rights Movement, today’s young African Americans must believe that they can determine their own destinies and that education is as critical to their success today as it was in the 1960s.

This story is excerpted from “The role of youth in the civil rights movement: Reflections on Birmingham,” by Freeman A. Hrabowski, III, President, University of Maryland Baltimore County (1996), with the express permission of the author.