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Another hate-filled terrorist attack on American soil—and why Romney doesn’t get it.

On this weekend, we remember another September terrorist attack on Americans, on American soil.
This attack took place on a previous September 15th.

This too was a religiously motivated attack on Americans, by an extremist and hate-filled group.

The attack was on September 15th, 1963. 
The site was the 16th Street Baptist Church, in Birmingham Alabama.

An off-shoot of the KKK planted a box of dynamite in the church, leading to the murder of four little girls, four beautiful African-American angels:  Addie Mae Collins (14), Denise McNair (11), Carole Robertson (14), and Cynthia Wesley (14).   More than twenty other people were injured.   The little girls were going to the basement to prepare for a sermon, which appropriately was titled:  “The Love That Forgives.”

The Church was an important gathering place for icons of the civil rights movement like Dr. Martin Luther King, Fred Shuttlesworth, and Ralph Abernathy.
The martyrdom of the little girls, and the community’s response to their martyrdom, was a turning point in the civil rights movement.

We remember these girls, and we remember the community’s response.

Dr. King offered a powerful eulogy for the girls, sharing these powerful words:

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.

And so my friends, they did not die in vain. (Yeah) God still has a way of wringing good out of evil. (Oh yes) And history has proven over and over again that unmerited suffering is redemptive. The innocent blood of these little girls may well serve as a redemptive force (Yeah) that will bring new light to this dark city. (Yeah) The holy Scripture says, "A little child shall lead them." (Oh yeah) The death of these little children may lead our whole Southland (Yeah) from the low road of man's inhumanity to man to the high road of peace and brotherhood. (Yeah, Yes) These tragic deaths may lead our nation to substitute an aristocracy of character for an aristocracy of color. The spilled blood of these innocent girls may cause the whole citizenry of Birmingham (Yeah) to transform the negative extremes of a dark past into the positive extremes of a bright future. Indeed this tragic event may cause the white South to come to terms with its conscience. (Yeah)

You can read the full Eulogy of Dr. King here.
You can listen to the Eulogy of Dr. King here:

Dr. King’s words continue to speak to us and to inspire us.  How do we respond to the hatred that we see in every community, in American society, in the world community?   How do we redeem the dream, and to transform the very system that produces violence?

The remembrance of these little girls on this September 15th, is another reminder of how much hate and violence and racism and terrorism are also a part of the American story.   We too have—not had, but have—these demons in our own soul, and we too have work to do in the full redemption of the American experiment.

People of different races came together in the funeral of those little girls in 1963.  Whites and blacks came together, to share humanity in the face of this trauma.   No city officials attended the funeral.    To put it bluntly, these city officials didn’t get it.  

Where we are today still bears far too many resemblances to that day.   We are not in 1963 anymore, but some of the demons of that age are still with us.  

The remembrance of these four little girls is a reminder of how not everyone in the American society remembers our past, or truly understands our present.   And yet not every official gets it today.  When Governor Romney states:

My friends cared more about what sports teams we followed than what church we went to.

Romeny shows that he doesn’t get it.  He doesn’t get the reality of racism, violence, and prejudice that far too many Americans (Hispanics, Muslims, African-Americans, Gays/Lesbians, the poor, many women, etc.) face today.    There are many of us for whom the choice of which church we attended or attend was and is a matter of life and death.   There are those of us for whom the choice of whom to love, and whom to marry, is not a simple matter.   There are tens of millions of us who do not access to adequate healthcare, education, or housing.   There are those of us for whom which mosque or which synagogue we attend is not less important than our sports team, but a courageous choice in the face of vandalism, terrorism, and prejudice.  

The history of Anti-Semitism in America is well-known, and the story of Islamophobia in America is an ongoing on.   Apart from the Park51 fiasco, the Murfreesboro Mosque, and the vandalisms that happen on an almost weekly basis, these local acts of prejudice, hatred, and violence are still obstacles to us realizing the fullness of the American dream.  

One way to honor the memory of these four little martyrs is to make sure that we as a society continue to redeem the American dream, and to insist on leaders who understand that the redemption of the American experiment is a task to work towards in the future, and not our past.

The images of the 16th Street Baptist Church are from Wikipedia.

Tags: 16th street baptist church, american soil, birmingham, dr. king, hatred, kkk, racism, terror, terrorism


  1. Omid, thank you for your great words.  As God encourages, sabr.  Be well.

  2. “There are many of us for whom the choice of which church we attended or attend was and is a matter of life and death.” Omid Safi

    I am curious why Omid Safi does not mention Islamic intolerance of Christians in Turkey, Pakistan, India, Indonesia, Malaysia where Bibles are banned, Iran where Muslims can try to convert Christians but it is a crime for Christians to try to convert a Muslim, Iraq and Egypt where Christian Churches are bombed and Christians must worship in secret? Or in Saudi Arabia and other Muslim countries where all Christian worship is illegal and all Christian symbols are banned? Or in Sudan, Nigeria, Ethiopia, and Kenya where Christian churches are firebombed and worshiping Christian’s are attacked and killed during Mass? Or in Algeria where Trappist monks were beheaded?

    He seems to equate any criticism of Islam with “hate speech” while the treatment of Christians in the Islamic world are ignored. Interesting.

    Fortunately for Omid Safi and all in America, we are protected by freedom of speech and freedom of religion.  Of course, Mr. Safi is also protected by the great America tradition of academic freedom and academic tenure. None of these freedoms and protections apparently exists in the Islamic world.

  3. Hello John.  I write about the legacy of America in all of her beauty and all of her ugliness because I am a citizen here.  I am an American, and this is my home.  So this is the place that i am most directly committed to redeeming.    As a citizen of the world I do write about other places, but this is my first home.
    I don’t expect you to be familiar with all of my writings, but had you read Progressive Muslims you would see that engaging in a critical way with the Islamic tradition is not something I have ever shied away from.
    May God bless you.

  4. Thank you Dr. Safi. Keep writing. There are many who are listening—including me. I look forward to creating the society you describe.

  5. dear Linda, thank you for your kind words.  God-willing we’ll live to see such a society, and as Dr. King told us, we will be participants in making it so.  Blessings to you

  6. CWN September 17, 2012

    A Catholic cathedral was desecrated in Niger, and several Christian leaders were taken into “protective custody” by police, as angry Muslims rallied against the film, “Innocence of Muslims.”

    Demonstrators in the city of Zinder burned American and British flags, then rushed at the cathedral, broke down the door, set fires, and destroyed statues.

  7. Your response is chilling. I find it beyond belief that you would categorize firebombing churches, slaughtering Catholics as they celebrate Mass, and the beheading of holy Trappist monks in Algeria as “Islamic tradition”. What a horrifying dismissal of bigotry, hatred, and brutality.

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