The 16th Street Baptist Church, the Edmund Pettus Bridge, and the Ambiguity of Southernness

By The Very Rev. Barkley S. Thompson

Two weeks ago Jill and I took our kids to see the film “Selma.” The movie is fantastic in its human portrayal of Martin Luther King Jr. so important in an era in which King, like other great American figures, is increasingly cast in marble and consequently risks losing his humanity among us. There are two images from the film that have stayed with me.

The first comes early on, when four little girls are descending the stairs in their Sunday best at the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham. They are discussing girlish things with smiles on their faces when the church is blown apart without warning, killing all four. As a viewer, even knowing that it is coming, the horror of the scene is a jarring, graphic reminder of the violence people are sometimes willing to do to one another due to differences in race, ethnicity, religion, or lifestyle.

The other image is of the second march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge, when Dr. King, John Lewis, and a beautiful diversity of races and religions walk hand-in-hand in prayerful solidarity with one another.

I grew up in the segregated South. You may do the math and realize that, at age forty-two, I was born well after Brown v. Board of Education, the Central High School crisis in Little Rock, the Civil Rights Act, and the Voting Rights Act. And yet, I did indeed grow up in a de facto segregated South. In my hometown there were no African Americans. I mean that literally. My mother, who returned to school to earn her library certification when I was in junior high, researched a paper on why this was so. Extending back generations, the reasons were ominous. There were veiled threats of violence. There was actual violence. Decades before, it had been made clear that African Americans were unwelcome. My early exposure to non-white Southerners, therefore, was through high school sporting events against teams from other towns, and the football field and basketball gym are not the best places to engender cross-cultural appreciation and understanding.

(It is important to note that the town I knew in the 1970s and 1980s, while monochromatic, was also a place I experienced as open-minded and loving. I don’t know how we’d have responded had African Americans moved to town, because it did not happen.)

I love being Southern, with our culture, music, food, and more. But I also live in the tension of what the alt-rock band Drive-By Truckers calls “the duality of the Southern thing.” My adult life has included the attempt to reconcile a sometimes ambiguous heritage with a commitment to the Gospel in which there is “no Jew or Greek, no slave or free, no male or female,” no black or white. “For we all are one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28). As we move into Black History Month, it is important to hold side-by-side the images of the 16th Street Baptist Church and the steady march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge to show the worst and the best of which we are capable. As Christians, may we always embody the best and walk hand-in-hand as brothers and sisters in Christ.