Wringing Good out of Evil
50 Years Ago in Birmingham

Eric Metaxas
September 13, 2013
Reproduced with Permission

This upcoming Sunday marks the anniversary of one of the most notorious acts of terrorism in American history. If you're thinking that I have the date confused, no, I'm not referring to 9/11.

I'm talking about the fiftieth anniversary of the bombing of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama. It was an act that, arguably, shaped the course of American history every bit as much as the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. And its legacy, as my friend Dr. Timothy George recently documented in a moving article in the journal First Things, is undoubtedly far more positive. Dr. George is the Dean of the Beeson Divinity School and the Chairman of the Colson Center Board of Governors.

On September 15, 1963, the church was celebrating "Youth Sunday." As part of the celebration, the pastor, John Cross, had prepared a sermon entitled "A Love that Forgives."

What no one at the church could have possibly known was that, earlier that morning, four members of the Ku Klux Klan had planted a bomb near the church's basement. After greeting visitors and taking Sunday School attendance, 14-year-old Carolyn Maull answered the phone in the church office.

The voice on the other end said "three minutes." Maull was confused for a moment and then she heard the explosion. Four of her friends - Addie Mae Collins, Carole Robertson, Cynthia Wesley, all of whom, like Maull, were 14 years old, and Denise McNair, age 11 - were killed by the blast.

As Dr. George points out, African-Americans in Birmingham were not strangers to this kind of violence. It wasn't even the first time a church had been bombed in what was gruesomely nicknamed "Bombingham."

But this attack was, if not different in kind, then different in the response it generated. At the girls' funeral, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. said that they "did not die in vain," and that "God still has a way of wringing good out of evil." He reminded mourners that "history has proven over and over again that unmerited suffering is redemptive."

He went on to say "that in spite of the darkness of this hour . . . we must not despair . . . We must not become bitter . . . nor must we harbor the desire to retaliate with violence. No, we must not lose faith in our white brothers."

The events of that tragic Sunday, which took place barely two weeks after the March on Washington and King's "I Have a Dream" speech, put the plight of African-Americans on the "front-burner" of American politics. The line between the terrorist violence and the passage of the Civil Rights Act ten months later is clearly-marked.

While God did bring good out of this horrific evil, the events of September 15th left its scars on survivors like Carolyn Maull. But God brought good from the evil that visited her as well.

The pain and fear born out of that day gave way to a healing that was the result, as she says of "[feeling] the Spirit of the Lord upon me." As Dr. George writes about in his First Things article, decades later, she even forgave the men who killed her friends.