September 16, 1963 brought news of one of the most horrific acts of hate and violence ever perpetrated during the Civil Rights movement. Four young black girls–Addie Mae Collins, Carol Denise McNair, and Cynthia Diane Wesley, and Carole Robertson–were killed in a church bombing planned by white supremacists.
One could scarcely think of more innocent victims of racism than these children who sat ensconced within the walls of the house of God and immersed in the study of Scripture. Men bent on chaos and disunity ripped their lives from this world and further tore apart a nation already divided along racial lines.
Days later, Martin Luther King, Jr. gave the eulogy for these children. In his seven-minute address, he begins by noting that their deaths were instructive to the nation. He names four groups specifically who should learn from their murders: ministers of the gospel, politicians, the federal government, and black people. He then generalizes his message to the entire American people.
What stands out about this section of King’s eulogy is the way he connects the act of the bombing to the broader context that allowed it to take place.
King recognizes that such a murderous act did not spring into being ex nihilo . Rather, the killers had their racist ideology nurtured, coddled, and permitted in a society comfortable with notions of white supremacy and black inferiority. The preacher places the responsibility on individuals who permit racism to grow through everyday decisions and the accumulation of moral compromises. He says concerned men and women must reckon with “the system, the way of life, the philosophy which produced the murderers.”
King’s words, as much as the murder of these four precious girls, prove instructive for the present day. As white supremacists, white nationalists, and the “alt-right” grow bolder, all citizens, especially Christians, must fight against the subtle ways racism presents itself and battle against the complicity that creates the context for racial strife.
Read some of King’s words below and listen to the entire address and read the transcript here.
They have something to say to each of us…
They have something to say to every minister of the gospel who has remained silent behind the safe security of stained-glass windows.
They have something to say to every politician who has fed his constituents with the stale bread of hatred and the spoiled meat of racism.
They have something to say to a federal government that has compromised with the undemocratic practices of southern Dixiecrats and the blatant hypocrisy of right-wing northern Republicans.
They have something to say to every Negro who has passively accepted the evil system of segregation and who has stood on the sidelines in a mighty struggle for justice.
They say to each of us, black and white alike, that we must substitute courage for caution.
They say to us that we must be concerned not merely about who murdered them, but about the system, the way of life, the philosophy which produced the murderers.
Their death says to us that we must work passionately and unrelentingly for the realization of the American dream.