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How The Media Covered The Civil Rights Movement: The 16th Street Baptist Church Bombing

September 15th, 1963 started off just like any other Sunday for Barbara Cross with morning Sunday school class down in the basement of 16th Street Baptist Church.

“Our Sunday school lesson that day was “A Love That Forgives” I’ll never forget that as long as I live,” says Cross. “In my class particular we discussed the scripture from Matthew the fifth chapter talking about agape love the godly type of love and agape is the Greek word for godly love.”

It was the first time Pastor John Cross, Barbara’s father, initiated Youth Sunday under his ministry. After class the children were getting ready for their other responsibilities that Sunday.

“I remember a good friend of mine came by the classroom and we were going to go to the bathroom together and my teacher stopped me.” Cross recalls. “My teacher’s name was Mrs. DeMann, and she gave me an assignment that literally save my life and kept me out of harm’s way.”

Cross was asked to write the names of those who would be moving up to the next age level in Sunday school. It was just a few minutes later that that Sunday would soon be marred by an explosion that would change Birmingham forever.

“I remembered I was in the process of writing the names down. The most horrific noise I ever heard in my life. I remember the building shaking. I remembered hearing children screaming.”

Four young girls died, many more injured and a community ripped apart by an act of violence on what was supposed to be a peaceful Sunday. Don Brown was a general assignment reporter for the Birmingham News during the early 60s. He was at a church three blocks away when the bomb went off.

“It was after the church service that I told my wife, ‘Take the car on home. I’m going to see what’s happened down the street here.’ And as soon as I saw what’s happened I got a ride to work with a photographer and stayed at work until after midnight that Sunday night.”

Local and national media outlets have been criticized for being slow to cover the Civil Rights movement in Birmingham. By the summer of 1963, every major news outlet had someone on the ground. After the explosion that rocked the country, news spread fast. At the Cross residence the phone was constantly busy right after the explosion from reporters to family members like Barbara Cross’ uncle in Virginia…

“I remembered my mother telling me he had to interrupt the line because there was a broadcast an NBC report or one of the major networks that said the 16th Street Baptist Church was bombed in Birmingham, Alabama,” says Cross. “And my uncle said that’s my brother in law’s church you got to get me through to that line I need to make sure my family is okay.”

It wasn’t long until word spread that Sunday and everyone in the nation knew what had transpired in Birmingham.

“I was preparing to get ready for church because I went to Sunday School and my brother yelled come quick, come quick something has happened in Birmingham."

Charles Avery was living just outside of Chicago at the time, but he never forgot his Birmingham roots.

“When we heard it on the news we were almost compelled to get in the car and come to Birmingham then at that moment we were so excited and wanted to get back home.”

Avery sensed what many were feeling…. Former Birmingham News reporter Don Brown says something big was about to happen …

“If you could equate the feeling around the city those next few days to somebody having a nervous breakdown, Birmingham was having a serious nervous breakdown.”

Two young men were killed later that day and the National Guard was brought in to keep the peace in the days following the bombing. As national and international media ramped up their coverage they echoed what Brown would hear while covering the Young Men’s Business Club in Birmingham.

“One of the lawyers whom I respected got up and told his colleagues “Birmingham is dead” this was after the church bombing,” says Brown. “And that was the feeling that the national media and Birmingham itself had left itself with when we saw what we had done at the 16th Street Baptist Church and I say we because everybody in Birmingham was blamed for that.”

50 years later now and Chuck Morgan’s words still ring in the city. Birmingham isn’t dead but it still carries the scars of September 15th with it. It’s a constant reminder in the parks and monuments to Civil Rights leaders and at 16th Street Baptist Church where it comes up in this first Sunday service.

“We’ve got a lot coming up in the next coming month as we commemorate the 50th anniversary of the church. But let me just say this, for us at 16th street don’t wait until September 15th to give God some praise every day is a day of thanksgiving. You might not be here September 15th."

The church has taken on civil rights history as a ministry offering tours of the church and basement where the bomb went off.

“We’ve increased our tour ministry when we got here and we have great volunteers who don’t mind telling the story,” says Pastor Arthur Price Junior. “We produced the documentary chronicling the events of 1963 and the bombing of the church and trials of bringing the perpetrators to justice so every year we know that people make a pilgrimage to come to Birmingham to see what happened here 50 years ago.”

Pastor Price says he has already received calls from over 350 people to attend service on the 50th anniversary this year including from the White House. On that day they will recreate the service from September 15th including the Sunday school lesson “A Love That Forgives” from the book of Matthew Chapter 5. An ironic lesson from 50 years ago and what could be a fitting reminder 50 years later.

Ryan Vasquez is a reporter and the former APR host of All Things Considered.
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