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Church bombing fueled their hearts’ passion

BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (BP) — On Sept. 15, 1963, a bomb exploded at 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Ala., killing four girls ages 11 to 14 and injuring 22 at the African American congregation affiliated with National Baptists.

Fifty years later, Southern Baptist leaders who remember the bombing say God used it to help inspire racial reconciliation even though the attackers intended only harm.

David Dockery

David Dockery, president of Union University in Jackson, Tenn., was 10 years old at the time and remembers hearing about the bombing on the radio as his family drove home from their own Birmingham church. When he saw the charred church building, he “couldn’t quite grasp that a sacred place like that would be the object of such hatred and devastation.”

Yet the racially charged climate of Birmingham helped him “seek to become an agent of grace and reconciliation,” he said.

In the early 1980s Dockery became pastor of a multiethnic congregation in Brooklyn, N.Y., a rarity in Southern Baptist life at the time. A decade later, as a dean at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, he helped the school of theology recruit its first two black faculty members.

When he became president of Union, Dockery established a center for racial reconciliation. Because of his work in race relations, the NAACP invited him in 2009 to deliver a plenary address at the annual meeting of its West Tennessee chapter, making him the first Caucasian to do so. This year he chaired an intercultural ministerial educational summit hosted by SBC Executive Committee President Frank S. Page to discuss how Southern Baptists can help prepare believers called to ministry from non-Anglo churches.

“My life at almost every chapter has played out attempts to be an agent of reconciliation to make sure that the hostilities so prevalent in September 1963 don’t manifest themselves again,” Dockery said.

James Dixon Jr.

As a young African American in Birmingham, James Dixon Jr.’s experience of the bombing was very different. But God also used it to make him an agent of reconciliation. He was only 12, he said it “stirred an uproar within my heart.”

As a high school student he and several other students attended a civil rights demonstration downtown. When his mother learned what he had done, she deemed it too dangerous and put a stop to his participation in demonstrations, but the strong feelings within him did not abate.

Coming into a relationship with Christ helped him process the civil rights era, said Dixon, who was converted to faith in Jesus Christ at age 25.

“I really praise God that He has given me a heart for people,” Dixon, now the longtime pastor of El-Bethel Baptist Church in Fort Washington, Md., said. “That whole era could have messed me up in terms of hatred…. It was Christ that really helped me process that.”

In the early 1970s, Dixon became a race relations coordinator at Fort Benning, Ga., while serving in the Army. A few years later, as pastor of a black Baptist church in the late 1970s, he felt God calling him to cross racial lines and volunteer with Southern Baptists to promote positive relationships between black denominations and Southern Baptist churches.

He moved to Maryland in 1987 as a missionary to serve as the first African American staff member at Prince George’s Baptist Association. He later became pastor of a Southern Baptist church and was elected as the first African American president of the Baptist Convention of Maryland-Delaware in 2010. Dixon also has served as president of the National African American Fellowship, a fellowship of more than 3,400 cooperating Southern Baptist churches, and serves on the SBC Executive Committee’s African American Advisory Council.

As the advisory council has discussed ways to involve more ethnic churches and church leaders in convention leadership, Dixon said, “Looking at where we are and looking at where we’ve come from, my mind reflects back. We’ve made progress among Southern Baptists, but we still have a long way to go.”

K. Marshall Williams

K. Marshall Williams, chair of the African American Advisory Council and pastor of Nazarene Baptist Church in Philadelphia, agrees. The 50th anniversary of the 16th Street bombing should make Southern Baptists reflect on the “appalling racism” of the 1960s and the victories of recent years, he said.

Williams, who served twice as president of the Baptist Convention of Pennsylvania-South Jersey, celebrates the increased number of minorities serving in Southern Baptist leadership, including SBC President Fred Luter.

Still, he said the same sinful attitudes that motivated the Birmingham bombing are alive today — though tempered and manifested in different ways: Some people believe they are better than others because of their skin color; prisons are filled disproportionately with minorities; ethnic minorities don’t have equal access to quality education; minorities face high unemployment. All of this is evidence of racial prejudice that Southern Baptists must help the nation address, Williams said.

“I think we’ve come a long way as Southern Baptists,” he said. “I think we’ve come a long way as a society in terms of race relations. But I think we have a long way to go. We still have a systemic problem in our land that one piece of dust thinks it’s better than another piece of dust. All of us come from dust.”

Timothy George

Timothy George, founding dean of Samford University’s Beeson Divinity School in Birmingham, said the 16th Street bombing has played a major role in his efforts to foster racial harmony in the city.

Carolyn McKinstry, a 2008 graduate of Beeson, was a 15-year-old member of 16th Street, who spoke with the four victims in the restroom and left only minutes before the bomb exploded that Sunday morning in 1963. The explosion left her traumatized.

McKinstry went through a phase of darkness and spiritual rebellion against God before experiencing personal revival and renewal of her faith in Christ. In 2011, she wrote about her experience in her memoir, “While the World Watched,” written in collaboration with George’s wife Denise. McKinstry has dedicated her life to the cause of forgiveness, love and racial reconciliation.

Thanks in part to McKinstry’s influence, Beeson professors have a warm relationship with 16th Street Church. Last spring on the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Letter From A Birmingham Jail,” Timothy George was the Southern Baptist representative at a commemorative conference hosted by the church.

“At Beeson the last 25 years we’ve had a passion for racial reconciliation as one of the strategic initiatives of our school,” George said. “Because we are in Birmingham, Ala., Beeson has a stewardship of geography. Birmingham is a city with lots of scars and many memories that need to be healed. We believe God has placed us here to be a part of that healing.”

Rick Lance

Racial healing is part of Rick Lance’s mission as well. Now the executive director of the Alabama Baptist State Board of Missions, Lance was 12 and living in Birmingham at the time of the bombing. He remembers being scared that four students about his age were murdered at church. He also remembers America’s focus on the city.

As with other Southern Baptists, Lance said “what happened in 1963 made an indelible impression” on him.

“Early on in my ministry, I tried to lead my churches to open their doors to all people,” he said. “Some resistance remained to such efforts, but in the main, my church families began to see people as individuals of worth created in the image of God. They became more receptive to people from all backgrounds and all walks of life. This was no small victory for Southern Baptist churches in the Deep South.”

Lance hopes Southern Baptists of all races will “pause and remember what happened during that eventful year in the city of Birmingham” and “see the fruits of the sacrifices made by people 50 years ago.”
David Roach is a writer in Shelbyville, Ky. This article first appeared in the SBC LIFE (SBC LIFE), journal of the SBC Executive Committee.