Organized in 1873, the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church was the first black church in Birmingham, Alabama. Initially, the congregation worshiped in a small building but in 1880 the church’s meeting place moved to its present location at 16th Street and 6th Avenue North in downtown Birmingham. A modern brick building was erected in 1884 that established the church’s presence in the city.
Over time the City of Birmingham ordered the congregation to tear down its building. The church commissioned the state’s only black architect to design a new building. A new church was completed in 1911 at a cost of $26,000.
Because of segregation Sixteenth Street Baptist Church, and other black churches in Birmingham, served many purposes. This facility functioned as a meeting place, a social center and a lecture hall for a variety of activities important to the lives of black citizens. W.E.B. DuBois, Mary McLeod Bethune, Paul Robeson, and Ralph Bunche were among the noted black Americans who spoke at the church building during its early years. African-Americans from across the city, as well as neighboring towns, came to Sixteenth Street. It was even called “everybody’s church” because of the part it had in the special programs it hosted.
Because of Sixteenth Street’s prominence in the black community, and its central location in downtown Birmingham, the church would eventually serve as headquarters for early civil rights movement’s mass meetings and rallies. During this time of trial, turmoil and confrontation, the church provided strength and safety for black men, women and children who were courageously dedicated to breaking the bonds of segregation in Birmingham, a city many still believed was the most racist in America. (I once heard Dr. King say that Chicago might have been the most racist city in America. Having lived in the Chicago region since 1969 I now understand why he said this at the time. The racism of Chicago was rooted in ethnic pride, its neighborhoods and the political power structure.)
The mass meetings held at Sixteenth Street, and other churches in Birmingham in May of 1963, resulted in marches and demonstrations that produced police retaliation and brutality previously unseen on television, a relatively new medium to most of us at the time. These events are still a painful memory to those who lived in the city and for millions who saw it reported on national news casts. I was fourteen years old in 1963 and still remember, quite vividly, these chilling events. Most of the Civil Rights marchers were school children and several thousand of these children had been arrested. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Rev. Fred L. Shuttlesworth, the pastor at Sixteenth Street Baptist Church, provided inspirational leadership to the marchers during this chaotic time. All historians agree that these marches and demonstrations eventually helped to end public segregation in Birmingham.
On Sunday, September 15, 1963, at 10:22 a.m., the church became known around the world when a bomb exploded, killing four young girls attending Sunday School. (20 other members of the congregation were injured.) Later that evening, in a different part of Birmingham, a black youth was killed by police and another was murdered by a mob of white men. It was a shocking, terrifying day in the history of Birmingham, a day of unforgettable infamy. It became, in God’s mercy through death and chaos, the day that forced white leaders to start to come to grips with the city’s (legal) racism.
The tragedy of that Sunday produced outpourings of sympathy, concern and financial contributions from all parts of the world. More than $300,000 was contributed for the restoration of the damaged church. It was reopened for services on Sunday, June 7, 1964. A special memorial gift – a large stained glass window of the image of a black crucified Christ – was given by the people of Wales (UK). Visitors from all over the world see it every day.
Sixteenth Street Baptist Church is across the street from the Civil Rights Institute in Birmingham, a place that I visited for the first time only two years ago. Here you can experience the story of a movement led by Christians through moving sounds and visuals. Along with the motel in Memphis where Dr. King was later killed these two civil rights museums have had a great impact on my commitment to justice. My one great regret is that it took me several years to become an active Christian in the Civil Rights era. Eventually this great movement of God drew me into its mission very deeply. I still find it difficult to emotionally comprehend these times, the places and the people, some of whom I heard speak in person.
On Sunday, October 26, I was in Birmingham and preparing to fly back to Chicago. I had the time to attend a morning worship service at Sixteenth Street Baptist before I returned to Chicago. I attended the worship service for two reasons. First, the legacy of the church had powerfully touched my own life. I had never been inside the church and I wanted to experience what it was like to worship at this sacred place in Birmingham. Second, I asked several friends about the present ministry of the church under Rev. Arthur Price, Jr. I heard that Pastor Price understood the legacy of this place and used it to further the kingdom of Christ through faithful commitment to righteousness and solid gospel preaching. I saw for myself just how true this commendation was by attending.
I will never forget my morning at Sixteenth Street Baptist Church. Tomorrow I will tell you more about what I saw and heard. It was a great time to reflect and give thanks as well as to pray for my own ministry of mentoring leaders for the future.