RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
On this Sunday, we remember a deadly Alabama church bombing 50 years ago.
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UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: Sunday morning, Sept. 15th, in a Baptist church in Birmingham, Ala., the Sunday school lesson is from Matthew. " I say unto you, love your enemies. Bless them that curse you. Do good to them that hate you." Then a bomb blows up under the church steps.
MARTIN: The Ku Klux Klan bomb killed four young, black girls. The tragedy sent shockwaves throughout the country and it also laid bare a deep rift in Birmingham. NPR's Debbie Elliott has the story.
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DEBBIE ELLIOTT, BYLINE: Carolyn McKinstry stands on the sidewalk outside 16th Street Baptist Church, and remembers arriving here for worship 50 years ago.
CAROLYN MCKINSTRY: It was youth day. We were excited 'cause that meant we got to do everything. You know, we sang, we ushered - we did everything.
ELLIOTT: Some of her Sunday school classmates had gone to the ladies room to freshen up.
MCKINSTRY: You know, they were combing hair. And no doubt they were excited about the fact that it was Youth Sunday. And girls just like to talk and primp, you know.
ELLIOTT: McKinstry says it was 10:15 when the bomb went off.
MCKINSTRY: People screamed. Glass was crashing in. And I heard someone say: Hit the floor.
ELLIOTT: Later, she learned that her classmates in the restroom - Denise McNair, Carole Robertson, Cynthia Wesley and Addie Mae Collins - were killed; and Addie Mae's sister, Sarah, was seriously wounded. Ever since, McKinstry, now a minister, says she's been on a lifelong journey to fight fear, and find reconciliation.
MCKINSTRY: I really struggled to understand, when our church was bombed, what it was that we were supposed to do differently. You know, if you're born brown, if you're born white - whatever you're born - if that's a problem for someone, what do you do about that? What do they expect you to do about that?
ELLIOTT: While black Birmingham reeled in the aftermath, white leaders scrambled.
DIANE MCWHORTER: The overwhelming reaction was one of distancing and denial. And that was the lunatic fringe who makes the rest of us look bad.
ELLIOTT: Journalist Diane McWhorter wrote about her hometown's civil rights revolution in the book "Carry Me Home."
MCWHORTER: One of the things that really struck me was that the mayor, not even 24 hours after the church bombing, made a statement to the press that all of us are victims, and most of us are innocent victims. Couldn't have those four victims have had a monopoly on martyrdom?
ELLIOTT: The political and business elite worried about further tarnishing the image of the city, already known as "Bombingham" because of the violent reaction to the civil rights movement. The day after the church bombing, a young, white lawyer named Chuck Morgan was scheduled to address a business club. He threw out his prepared remarks and instead, delivered an indictment against his peers.
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UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (Reading) Who threw that bomb? The answer should be, we all did it.
ELLIOTT: An actor re-created Chuck Morgan's speech for this Southern Poverty Law Center video.
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (Reading) It's every little individual who talks about "the niggers," and spreads the seeds of his hate to his neighbor and his son.
ELLIOTT: His widow, Camille Morgan, says he ended this speech on a sharp note.
CAMILLE MORGAN: "Birmingham is not a dying city. It is dead." Woo! (Laughter) They didn't like that.
ELLIOTT: Morgan's speech was picked up by the national press, and threats ensued. Within two weeks, the couple and their young son had to pack up and flee her native Birmingham under the cover of night. Decades later, Camille Morgan discovered a box in her attic, where her husband had collected some of the letters he received at the time.
MORGAN: You can see this one: Dere Chuck - see how it's spelled?
ELLIOTT: Dere, typed D-E-R-E on a yellowing card.
MORGAN: (Reading) Since the city is dead, why don't you move afore it happens to you. Iffin you stay here that's what'll happen to you - just yucky stuff like that.
ELLIOTT: But it wasn't only hard-line Klansmen who pushed Morgan out of Birmingham. Diane McWhorter.
MCWHORTER: My father was one of his closest friends. And when I asked him about it, I said, that can't be the same Chuck Morgan that we're talking about, if he was one of your closest friends. And he said yeah, doll baby, we ran his ass out of town. So it's just, you know - but that's it. It's just business; just "bidness."
ELLIOTT: Business is what Birmingham had always been about, founded after the Civil War by industrialists drawn to the region's iron deposits. Local attorney Chervis Isom says that industrial history helps explain why the city was ripe to become ground zero for the civil rights movement.
CHERVIS ISOM: They brought in black workers from the plantation areas of south Alabama, and they brought in the white workers from the hills of north Alabama who had never seen any black people. And that became a recipe for a disaster.
ELLIOTT: Isom, a self-proclaimed reformed racist, says today in Birmingham, blacks and whites have found commonalities - working side by side, eating in the same cafes, but usually retiring at night to communities still divided by race and class. [POST-BROADCAST CLARIFICATION: The "reformed racist" description falls short of adequately describing Isom's journey as a young man, and neglects to provide a dimension on his change of heart over 50 years ago, and the many changes that have taken place in Birmingham in the past half-century. In Isom's interview with correspondent Debbie Elliott, he explained, "It was hard not to be a racist in those days, when that's all you saw and heard." And reflecting a transition experienced by many people in Birmingham over the decades, he added, "It was a long, hard climb for me to come out of that milieu."]
Not unlike other American cities, he says, yet also different.
ISOM: This is the crucible, where it happened. And so I think that Birmingham is the place people turn to when they've got questions about race. They look back here, to see how we're doing.
JEFF DREW: I think that in the black community, the 16th Street bombing will always remain a testament of not to fully trust white folks.
ELLIOTT: Birmingham businessman Jeff Drew was a classmate of three of the murdered girls.
DREW: Our hearts became reserved. We had a new fear of white violence because if you will stoop that low - to kill children in church - then is there anything else that you couldn't do?
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ELLIOTT: Back at the 16th Street Baptist Church, Carolyn McKinstry says out of the tragedy here, has come a redemptive force.
MCKINSTRY: I think that the world began to change with the shedding of the innocent blood of these girls.
ELLIOTT: Their lives now celebrated 50 years later in Birmingham, with a new sculpture of the young victims at the park across the street from the church. It's inscribed: "A Love That Forgives."
MCKINSTRY: "A Love That Forgives" - that would have been the title of the pastor's sermon Sept. 15th. He never got a chance to preach that sermon.
ELLIOTT: Now, McKinstry says, it's up to the people of Birmingham to preach it, and live it, every day.
Debbie Elliott, NPR News.