Last week, several of us traveled south on a Civil Rights Bus Tour… Birmingham, Selma, Montgomery, Atlanta. Our first stop in Birmingham was 16th Street Baptist Church. I knew a little about the church, being a child of the south and a resident of Montgomery, Alabama, from 1990-1995. I knew it was a prominent black church in Birmingham. I did not know it had first grown prominent after the Civil War during Reconstruction and that the white officials in the city condemned the building and had it torn down when the black church became too successful for their liking. I knew about the racist bombing that left four young girls dead. I didn’t know about two other young boys who died that same day around town, one by police and the other by an angry white mob. I knew Rev. Dr. King preached at that church sometimes. I did not know he preached at the funeral of three of the girls who were members of that church. I knew about the pictures of white police sicking their dogs on black youth and white firefighters unleashing their firehoses on black protestors. I did not know the church was the home base for the political effort for equal voting and civil rights, where strategies were planned, and non-violent resistance was taught. I did not know those dogs and fire hoses happened on the sidewalk and street right outside the church.
We were invited upstairs into the sanctuary. Our guide told us more about its history. He told us how one stained glass window of Jesus survived the bombing. However, the face and heart of Jesus had been blown out by the explosion. He explained the story and symbolism of the newer Wales Window, a window gifted to the church after the bombing from a couple from Wales, showing a black Jesus riddled with bullets and bent from water. Our guide played “We Shall Overcome” on the magnificent organ. He answered a few questions, then invited us to look around and take pictures.
Another in our group invited me to the chancel, behind the pulpit, for a picture. I almost couldn’t move.
I’ve stood behind pulpits many times and behind different pulpits. I’ve crafted and spoken words of the Kingdom of God, what Dr. King often called the “Beloved Community.” I’ve felt the fear and weight of the pulpit before, but never like this.
I did not feel worthy. I didn’t feel like I had the right to stand behind that pulpit, where the price of speaking gospel truth might lead to freedom and firehoses, deliverance and dogs, life and death.
In most white churches, people expect preachers to be non-political or apolitical. White congregants often assume the “separation of church and state” equally applies in both directions. The state should stay out of church business, and the church should stay neutral or silent on state/political issues.
Black churches have never had that misconception or luxury. Black churches expect their preachers to preach about the “polis,” the City of God, and the politics of God. Black churches expect their preachers to retell the stories of scripture, and to connect them to modern-day leaders, laws, and injustices. Black churches demand the state stay out of the church but expect the church to hold the state accountable to the way God would run society.
The preachers who preach from the pulpit at 16th Street Baptist Church have boldly said hard truths that challenged presidents, governors, police chiefs, and public safety officials. Those preachers gave their people daunting marching orders to resist laws and challenge policies, to risk getting arrested or attacked to demonstrate greater obedience than to the racist, segregationist laws of their town, county, state, or country. Those preachers had a higher loyalty, more faith, and more courage than those who heard them and followed.
Jill helped me up those stairs. She encouraged me to climb them, one by one, and to risk standing there. I didn’t speak while I stood there. I just stood, felt the weight of history, leaned on the pulpit a bit for support, and wept.
Many white churches and preachers of that time complained the preachers and people of 16th Street Baptist were asking too much or pushing too hard. They called them divisive, instigators, rabble-rousers, or uppity. Other white churches and preachers were silent, fearing losing members, money, or both. A few white clergies stood up and spoke against segregation, racism, and violence. Some of those white clergy lost their pulpits. Some even lost their lives.
I’d like to think I would have been brave enough to speak out. I’d like to think this congregation would have boldly supported me in doing so. I’d like to think this congregation would have confronted racism head-on with our bodies and dollars, even if that meant our community might ostracize, threaten, or attack us. But I don’t know. Would I? Would we?
Perhaps the best way to know what we would have done in the past is to measure what we do in the present.
Blessing, Laughter, and Loving be yours,
Rev. Joel L. Tolbert, Pastor