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We All Did It: A White Lawyer's Indictment of the White Community after the 16th Street Birmingham Church Bombing
Listen to the entire speech here.
This is the first in a series of posts leading up to the 60th anniversary of the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing. If you find these article informative, consider becoming a paid subscriber today.
Charles Morgan, Jr. knew it was time to speak. For years he had been one of the “good white people” in Birmingham, Alabama. He lamented racial segregation. He worked to get a medical center built in a low-income part of town. He served as the president of the Junior Bar Association and the chairman for the local Man of the Year Award.
But this time he knew he had to do more.
He had to call his fellow white people to account for the tragedy that had just occurred.
On the morning of September 15, 1963, a racial terrorist exploded a bomb at the base of the 16th Street Baptist Church. It was an all-Black church and four young girls—Addie Mae Collins, Denise McNair, Carole Robertson, and Cynthia Wesley—had been killed in the blast. Many others were injured and maimed.
The next day, Charles Morgan, Jr. stood up to give an address at the Young Men’s Business Club of Birmingham. In his memoir written the next year, Morgan described the members as, “second-echelon executives, lawyers, newspapermen, engineers, architects, merchants…These were the future leaders of Birmingham.”
Before this group of influential local men, Morgan delivered a speech that would lead to his exodus from Birmingham and change his life forever.
“Four little girls were killed in Birmingham yesterday. A mad, remorseful, worried community asks, ‘Who did it? Who threw that bomb? Was it a Negro or a white?’ The answer should be ‘We all did it.’ Every last one of us is condemned for that crime and the bombing before it and the ones last month, last year, a decade ago. We all did it.”
Charles Morgan, Jr. articulated the central problem of racism in the United States—one that has held true from the time he gave his speech in 1963 until the present-day—the problem of compromise and complicity.
Even among the most hateful individuals, few people would actually set a bomb at a Black church. Only the “extremists” do that.
But what about everyone else? Are the only people who bear responsibility for racism the ones who commit the most heinous acts? What role does the community and the culture therein play?
Morgan had a much wider view of which white people stood indicted after the church bombing.
The ‘who’ is every governor who ever shouted for lawlessness and became a law violator. It is every Senator and every Representative who in the halls of Congress stands and with mock humility tells the world that things back home aren’t really like they are. It is courts that move ever so slowly and newspapers that timorously defend the law.
Morgan even had words for Christians who resided in Birmingham, nicknamed the “City of Churches”, renowned not only for the number of places of worship, but for the high church attendance of its residents.
Who was responsible for the bombing? “It is all the Christians and all their ministers who spoke too late in anguished cries against violence. It is the coward in each of us,” Morgan explained.
I wrote in my first book, The Color of Compromise, “The refusal to act in the midst of injustice is itself an act of injustice. Indifference to oppression perpetuates oppression.”
The 16th Street Baptist Church bombing happened, in part, because so many people stayed silent out of fear or tacit approval of the racism that prevailed in their community.
The dynamics are not much different today. Vile racist rhetoric tumbles down from officials in the some of the highest elected offices in the land. Books are banned. Entire fields of study are labeled “woke” and part of a plot to “indoctrinate” school children.
Then, when another racist act occurs, such as the killing of three Black people by a white man with swastikas painted on his gun in Jacksonville, Florida, people can quickly cry “lone wolf” to absolve themselves of responsibility.
But even if we do not commit the physical acts of violence, our words and actions—or our silence and inaction—are part of what create a context of complicity.
Charles Morgan, Jr. said that the culture of compromise with racism would have to be faced by “those members of the white community who are not afraid to succumb to conscience.”
In order to reduce racism, more white people will have to speak prophetically toward their own communities, colleagues, and kinfolk. They will have to risk their reputations, their income, and even their safety for the sake of racial justice.
Morgan lost his home and his business in Birmingham just for giving a speech and simply for standing in solidarity with the victims of racism. It was a costly decision that affected not only him but his wife and young son as well.
Do we think that racial justice will be any less costly today?
Fear often erodes the conviction to speak up for racial justice. The prospect of facing persecution rightly gives us pause. But action is still required.
The beginning of the solution is a shift in mindset, from self to others. From the powerful to the disempowered. From the perpetrators to the victims.
Those four little Negro girls were human beings. They had lived their fourteen years in a leaderless city; a city where no one accepts responsibility, where everyone wants to blame somebody else.
If we let the memory of Addie Mae, Cynthia, Carole, and Denise guide our actions, then we will speak up. We will act. We will confront instead of compromise with racism.
You can to Charles Morgan, Jr.’s entire speech as read by his son.
What did you think of Charles Morgan Junior speech? Let us know in the comments.
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