Fifty Years Later, Survivors of Birmingham Bombing Say Forgiveness Is Key to Healing and Reconciliation
BIRMINGHAM, ALA. (September 6, 2013) — Bishop James Lowe can recall precisely where he was at 10:22 a.m., Sunday, September 15, 1963, when a bomb planted under basement stairs at Birmingham, Alabama's 16th Street Baptist Church detonated, killing four young girls — and in the process bringing national focus to the growing issue of civil rights for blacks in America.
“I was in a Sunday school room two doors down from where the bomb was placed that killed the four girls,” recalled Bishop Lowe, pastor of Birmingham's thriving Guiding Light Church and a prominent spiritual leader in the community.
Eleven years old at the time, Lowe was with a number of other boys in one of the church's Sunday school class rooms when the bomb, placed by local Ku Klux Klan members, exploded and killed four of his friends and acquaintances: Addie Mae Collins, Cynthia Wesley, Carole Robertson, and Denise McNair.
On September 11 and 15, Christian television's Trinity Broadcasting Network will partner with the City of Birmingham to produce a pair of exclusive televised programs to honor the memories of the four girls and to commemorate the tragic event that changed the face of the struggle for civil rights in America. (Click Here for more information about the TBN programs.)
The memories of the tragic and historic event are still fresh in Lowe's mind fifty years after the fact, as are the emotions with which he and other survivors have struggled. “I remember a loud deafening noise and seeing glass flying out from the windows,” Lowe recounted of the moment of the blast. “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.”
One of the most vivid impressions that has remained with Bishop Lowe over the many years since the tragedy is not of the physical pain — like other survivors he suffered cuts and injuries from broken glass and flying debris. Rather, it is the memories of the terror on the faces and in the voices of those caught in the blast, and of parents frantically searching for their children.
As he ran out of the Sunday school room with thoughts of his two younger siblings somewhere nearby, Lowe caught a glimpse of a Sunday school teacher under a table embracing his five-year-old sister. “I could see the fear on their faces and in both of their eyes,” he remembered.
Later, as he stood outside the damaged church building, looking on the desperate faces of parents and watching police put up barricades, Lowe suddenly heard the voice of his own terrified mother calling to him, and still distinctly remembers her sobs of relief when he assured her that his two sisters were okay. “To this day I still choke up remembering her voice,” he recalls.
Like other survivors, Lowe was forced to deal with the trauma of being the target of an attack motivated by intense hatred. “How does any young person deal with that kind of thing?” he asked. “There were no counselors available to us, so for the most part we had to deal privately with a whole range of emotions.”
Uppermost was sorting out the motive for such a heartless assault on children. “How could people be so vicious and so hateful that they would place a bomb in a church,” he wondered, “and then set that bomb at a time to go off when innocent children were in Sunday school?”
Lowe said that for years following the violent attack he struggled with conflicting emotions regarding his faith in God and the actions of those who claimed to worship Him. “I became cynical regarding this life and the ability of man to deal righteously with his brother,” he recalled.
It was only after Lowe fully committed his life to Christ in his mid-twenties that forgiveness came, along with God's purpose for his life — to help bring true healing and reconciliation to individuals, families, and communities. “It is in the heart where evil resides, and unless the heart is changed by a personal relation with Almighty God through Christ Jesus no change will occur,” Bishop Lowe explained. Today I do not look for good in any man. I look for the God in him.”
He added that one of his main missions today is “to do all I can to help people come to a true sincere love and respect for one another and deal with differences in such a way that tragedies like this will never have to occur again.”
Dale Long, another of the bombing survivors, said that returning good for the evil that was done that day in 1963 is key to living in forgiveness. Also eleven at the time of the bombing and in the same class room as James Lowe, Long said that two individuals were personally responsible for helping him turn in the right direction following the bombing.
The first was Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., who provided what Long considers a personal epiphany at the funeral service he attended for three of the victims of the bombing. “At the conclusion of this very moving and emotional service, as Dr. King joined the other ministers in a recessional, this great man appeared to lock his stern and somber gaze upon me,” recalled Long. “I looked away for a few moments, and when I turned back Dr. King was still looking straight at me, as though he were issuing a challenge to me — and my generation — to be part of the healing and change that had to take place to put a stop to such violence and hatred.”
The other person who provided needed counsel after the bombing was Long's grandmother. “My grandmother had always taught me the importance of faith, prayer, walking uprightly, and getting a good education,” recalled Long. “But after the bombing, she emphasized to me, 'Dale, you were spared for a reason. Don't take it lightly.' Those words deeply motivated me.”
With two such influential people spurring him on, Long went on to graduate from Texas Southern University in Houston, and today works for the City of Dallas, Texas in Community Outreach. But perhaps his greatest calling has been to mentor youth for nearly forty years through the national Big Brothers and Big Sisters program. A former national “Big Brother of the Year,” Long has mentored a total of seven young men through the Big Brothers program, and has been influential in encouraging other men and women to give back to their community through mentoring and speaking into the lives of young people.
Long said that he feels a particular calling to reach out to the many African-American boys and young men who have no fathers and few positive role models available to them. “African-American boys are the civil rights issue of today,” he challenged. “We must reach out to them and show them the way, just like Dr. King and a few other key men reached out to me and my generation. We can't afford to sit by and let hatred, violence, poverty, and hopelessness define their futures.”
He added that he has been powerfully motivated by the memories of the four girls who died that day at Birmingham's 16th Street Baptist Church. “Addie Mae, Cynthia, Carole, and Denise didn't get the chance to impact their families and their communities,” he said. “That was stolen from them, so I, and others who survived that day, are standing in their place. We're making a difference in their names.”
Bishop Lowe agreed with that motivation. “These were four young innocent girls,” he said. “We can honor their memories by recognizing that anytime 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.”
He said that while he, like many other children who were in the church on September 15, 1963, was a victim of violence and hatred, “I have made a conscious choice over the years not to be known as a victim, but rather a victor over that violence and hatred.”
On September 14, Bishop Lowe and his church will sponsor a reunion for all those who survived the Birmingham bombing — the first time such a reunion has taken place. “In addition to remembering those who died, we want to honor those who survived this despicable act, who struggled through the pain and raw emotions, and who are living testimonies of God's mercy and forgiveness,” Bishop Lowe explained.
He said that one of his goals in bringing the survivors together is “to embrace and comfort those who may be still hurting and broken as a result of that horrific event, and say to them, 'Let us take confidence in Christ, and know that we shall overcome.'”
Trinity Broadcasting Network will be on hand to record some of the poignant moments of this unique and historic reunion, and will include them in the broadcasts of the programs commemorating the 50th anniversary of the Birmingham bombing.
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