January 10, 2024

Remembering Dr. King –
Buried in Birmingham:
A Legacy of Hate and The Slaughter of Innocents

In Birmingham, Alabama, four graves mark a horrific event and a sad day in our history. As we remember the memory of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., he would also want us to remember those innocents who died in the name of hatred.

Sunday morning, September 15, 1963, was a typical late summer day in Birmingham, morning temperatures were in the mid-sixties, and the morning sun broke through cloudless skies. Church bells rang, and citizens of Birmingham made their way to church.

Along 16th Street, many walked, with Bibles in their hands and their Sunday best clothes on, to the 16th Street Baptist Church. Doors opened and the parishioners filed in, taking their place in their pew. The sun poured through the stained-glass windows, displaying the pretty colors across the walls of the sanctuary. The 16th Street Baptist Church was filled with people eager to hear the morning sermon on that September morning.

In the years before that morning, the 16th Street Baptist Church had become a local symbol of the Civil Rights Movement that was taking place across the country. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. described Birmingham as "probably the most thoroughly segregated city in the United States." The citizens of the city were segregated by race at water fountains, bathrooms, and schools. Birmingham’s African American citizens had suffered violence at the hands of despicable human beings who had bombed their homes, threatened their lives, and placed roadblocks in their way to achieving the promise of America.

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. became one of the prominent leaders of the Civil Rights Movement, from being a pastor at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery to joining his father as co-pastor of the Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta. Along the way, he participated in the Montgomery Bus Boycott of 1955, sit-ins, and protests in Atlanta. The proximity of Birmingham, Montgomery, and Atlanta became ground zero as centuries of discrimination were being opposed by the leaders of the Civil Rights Movement.

In April 1963, Dr. King was working on the issues African American citizens faced in Birmingham and was arrested after Birmingham Police Chief Eugene “Bull” Connor had firehoses and dogs on protesters there. Men, women, and children were attacked by dogs as the fire hoses pushed them to the ground. Dr. King was arrested and jailed in Birmingham, where he penned his famous “Letter from Birmingham Jail” calling on national leaders to use the law to bring about social justice. While he sat in jail in Birmingham, UAW President Walter Reuther raised the money to bail Dr King and his fellow protesters out of jail.

Walter Reuther gave Dr. King an office at UAW Headquarters in Detroit, while he was working on the Poor People’s March in Detroit and planning the March on Washington. It was in this office at Solidarity House that Dr King wrote his famous “I Have a Dream” speech. The March on Washington took place on August 28, 1963, as Walter Reuther joined Dr. King on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial as he delivered that famous speech that still resonates today. On September 4, the schools in Birmingham, Alabama were ordered to be integrated, ending a system of segregation that had existed in Birmingham since the Civil War.

Two weeks later, the members of the 16th Street Baptist Church gathered for a morning of worship and faith. Prior to the members arriving at the church, four members of the United Klans of America placed several sticks of dynamite under the steps of the church. An anonymous caller dialed the church and said, “three minutes.” Less than a minute later, the bomb exploded, blasting a hole in the back of the church, and creating a huge crater in the middle. Windows were blown out of surrounding buildings for two blocks. Hundreds of stunned worshipers dug through the rubble looking for survivors. Four young girls, Maddie Mae Collins, age 14, Carol Denise McNair, age 11, Carole Rosamond Robertson, age 14 and Cynthia Dionne Wesley age 14 were all killed in the terrorist attack.

Dr. King called the bombing," one of the most vicious and tragic crimes ever perpetrated against humanity.” By 1965 the FBI had four suspects, but threats and intimidation would prevent witnesses from testifying against the four terrorists. Even though the FBI had a great deal of evidence, it was never shared with prosecutors in Birmingham. It would be 1977 before the first stood trial and the others would not stand trial until 1995. Four innocent young girls lost their lives, while we as a nation sacrificed our innocents to allow it to happen.

On April 4, 1968, Dr. King would also die as a result of an act of violence by another domestic terrorist. Over the past several years, our country has seen a spike in activity among hate groups, as they have crawled out from the shadows to renew their cowardly acts. In June 2015, a gunman entered the historic Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina, and killed nine people assembled for worship. The killer said he was there to kill black people.

How much longer will we allow this terrorism to continue? How many must die before we as a nation say, “Enough is enough.” Contrary to what a former president said, there are NOT very good people on both sides of the issue. You cannot hate your fellow Americans and pretend to love America. It simply does not work that way.

As we pause to remember Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., I hope that we honor his legacy by continuing his work. Dr. King said, “I have decided to stick with love- hate is too great a burden to bear.” We must say no to discrimination, no to bigotry, no to exclusion, and no to hate. The burden for us as a union, as a nation, and as a people is simply too great a burden to bear. We owe that to four little girls buried in Birmingham.






Tim Smith, Director UAW Region 8