Memorial Day weekend, Birmingham, Alabama: A stirring service at the 16th St. Baptist Church.

By CHUCK OFFENBURGER

BIRMINGHAM, Alabama, May 30, 2024 – It was baseball that drew us here in the days leading up to Memorial Day.  My “VandyBoys” – that’s short-form for our Vanderbilt University Commodores baseball team – went 3-1in the tough Southeastern Conference tournament played in the Birmingham suburb of Hoover, bowing out in the semifinals.  It was a good showing by our lads. And it was especially nice that we didn’t have to hurry to the championship game Sunday afternoon. That let us give full attention and devotion to the Sunday late-morning service at the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church.

Attending that service at that church, on the Sunday of Memorial Day weekend, wound up being the highlight of our whole seven-day trip, at least in my view.

“The sermon we heard went on for more than an hour,” she said afterward. “But I never once looked at my watch, or felt like the preacher was going on too long, or trying to bring too much into it.”

The Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama.

The pastor, Rev. Arthur Price Jr. is a master of what the Baptists – particularly the Black Baptists – call “alliterative preaching.”   He frequently uses triple-repetition of sounds to emphasize a point, like in the church motto.  The Sixteenth Street Church, the motto says, is “committed to Evangelizing the Sinner, Exalting the Savior, and Equipping the Saints for Jesus Christ.” The church’s “vision,” the Sunday bulletin said, “is to have Bible-centric ministry that will Reach, Rebuild and Reproduce disciples through the power of the Holy Spirit.”

That style, the 58-year-old Price told me a couple days later, “is a tool I learned from a pastor of mine who was a real mentor for me, too.  He taught me that by using alliteration like that, it helps people remember the points of your sermon.”

It works.  It has served him and his congregation well in the 22 years he’s been pastor at the Sixteenth Street church.

Rev. Arthur Price Jr., the pastor.

Fitting for Memorial Day weekend, he led us in prayer for those soldiers who have died on battlefields around the world in defense of freedom in our nation.  And he called for more prayers for those who’ve died seeking freedom in the streets, schools, and even churches of this nation.  And we prayed for those who are still seeking freedom today in America.

He didn’t have to detail the painful history of those innocents who died right here in this church building, when the war on freedom blew up right here, almost 61 years ago.  All of us attending surely knew the story.

On Sept. 15, 1963, just as the people of the Sixteenth Street church were moving from Sunday School to the main service, Ku Klux Klansmen set off a bomb or bombs in the church.  Four young girls were killed – three 14-year-olds Carole Robertson, Denise McNair and Addie Mae Collins, and 11-year old Cynthia Morris Wesley. More than 20 other church members were injured.

It became known as the bombing “heard around the world.”

It was a pivotal moment in the Civil Rights Movement, one of a half-dozen such moments when good people everywhere stood up against racial oppression in America and demanded change.

Beginning the service. (Photo by Mary Riche)

Our great pal Caryl Privett, who was one year behind me at Vanderbilt long ago, took us to church Sunday at the Sixteenth Street church. 

She lives in another Birmingham suburb, Mountain Brook, and she has been a key figure in the metro area’s long civil rights history. When she graduated from New York University’s law school, she returned to her home state of Alabama to become a Civil Rights attorney.  Eventually, she joined the U.S. Department of Justice and became U.S. Attorney in Birmingham, for a time, then finished her career as a district court judge in the Alabama state judicial system.

“I have attended a Sunday service at the Sixteenth Street Church before, but not in a long time,” said Privett, who is president of her congregation at Birmingham’s Independent Presbyterian Church. “Visiting Sixteenth Street, attending services or events there always brings back memories of the people I’ve encountered there. The memories are bittersweet.”

In 1996, as the U.S. Attorney, she authorized the re-opening of the investigation of the 1963 bombing at the church, and that led to the prosecution and conviction of two more Ku Klux Klansmen who had escaped the initial prosecution in 1977.

Retired Judge Caryl Privett, the columnist and Sixteenth Street church member Willie Casey, after the service. Casey, a prominent business and political leader in Birmingham, helped Privett in her first campaign to be an Alabama district court judge in 2004. Alabama’s judicial system has partisan elections of judges. (Photo by Mary Riche)

Rev. Price and the 500 members of his congregation today do not underplay the tragedy in their church’s history.  Indeed, they’re accustomed to having many curious visitors at their services, and they offer guided tours and copies of stories and books that have been written about the bombing.

“That certainly has its place,” the pastor told me. “But our main purpose today at the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church is the preaching words of Jesus Christ and ministering to the flock here now. 

“Yes, we had a significant historical event that happened here but that was 60 years ago. Our church is over 150 years old.  So, I remind people that while we are a church of history, we are also a church with an even longer history of preaching the word of God.”

The history, the preaching, the music, the welcome, the deep feeling, the love.  We left feeling blessed.  And inspired.

We close with these additional photos of the Sixteenth Street church.

Up close on the church corner.

The cornerstone of the church.

Stained glass window above the main entrance. (Photo by Mary Riche)

Church’s sign hanging high on the steeple. (Photo by Mary Riche)

The National Historic Landmark designation.

Closing the service.

In memory of the bombing victims. This amazing sculpture, on the corner of a park that is catty-cornered from the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church, is a stop on Birmingham’s “Freedom Walk” trail of notable places in the history of the Civil Rights Movement.

The setting today is somewhat jolting, but also consoling and inspiring.

You can comment on this column below or write the columnist directly by email at chuck@offenburger.com.

One thought on “Memorial Day weekend, Birmingham, Alabama: A stirring service at the 16th St. Baptist Church.

  1. Our family moved to Birmingham in the early 60’s. Although our father had warned us life would be different while living there, we could not grasp why people were treated with such disrespect because of the color of their skin.
    One of my fondest memories was going to a Jewish deli for bagels and lox after church every Sunday in the summertime. (My dad was Jewish, and mom was Catholic) We looked forward to Sunday morning church as we knew there would be a treat awaiting us after mass.
    A Baptist church was located near the deli. The church had no air conditioning so every window at the church was open. And we were treated to a magnificent gospel music concert as we ate our breakfast.
    We still talk about some of the incredible memories we experienced along with some dreadful ones as well.

    • City - West Des Moines
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