The past two weeks have witnessed monumental and fundamental change in America, with the precipitating event to much of that change being a bloody hate crime in the American south. An ignorant and confused young white man walked into a prayer meeting at a historic black church in Charleston, South Carolina, where he apparently spent some time in fellowship with the congregation before opening fire and killing nine of them.
A couple of days ago President Obama went to Charleston where he gave the eulogy for the church's minister, Clementa Pinckney, who was murdered in the attack. Some said that the eulogy represented the high-water mark of Obama's oratory skills - and he followed his remarks by leading those gathered at the funeral in what was reportedly an amazing rendition of "Amazing Grace." Many in the press felt that Obama had gotten his groove back.
The shooter in South Carolina was a twenty-one-year-old named Dylann Roof. He had apparently come under the influence of several on-line hate groups who filled his head with stories of black criminals running amok in society and raping white women. Mr. Roof also had a fixation on the Confederate flag and dreamed of instigating a race war.
The race war didn't happen, but at least five black churches across the south have been burned since the mass murder in Charleston - just cowardly acts of nighttime terror. The shooter did, however, probably much to his own shock and horror, precipitate a war of sorts on his beloved Confederate flag. Nikki Haley, the governor of South Carolina, is asking her state's legislature to remove it from the state capitol grounds - and another young woman in the state, Bree Newsome, didn't wait for the legislature to act - she climbed the flagpole and removed the symbol of bigotry and slavery herself. Ms. Newsome, an African-American, was promptly arrested - it is still the American south, after all.
Governors in other southern states are either removing, or seriously talking of removing, Confederate flags that are on display in their own states - all changes being brought about by a young man who wanted to instigate change. Thank you, Dylann Roof, for helping to speed the demise of that emblem you so dearly love.
Back in the first hundred years following the Civil War, racial hate crimes, if they were even reported at all, were often just local news. That began to change in the 1960's when activists from the north and national television crews started arriving in the South to see what was going on and to make changes. Several crimes occurred during that time that truly shocked the nation. One of those was the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church (a black church) in Birmingham, Alabama, a blast which killed four beautiful young black girls.
Today's poem, "Ballad of Birmingham," by the late African American poet and publisher, Dudley Randall, pays homage to that awful event. Maybe things are not much better than they were fifty years ago when this crime at a black southern church shocked a nation - or maybe real winds of change are starting to stir. This time there was a black American President to go to the site of the carnage and lead all Americans in prayer and song. This time there was a young black female able to scale a flagpole and bring down a symbol of hatred without being set upon by police dogs or shot. This time there was a promise of actual change wafting through the magnolias of the Old South.
The 16th Street Street Baptist Church wasn't the first black house of worship destroyed by racial hatred, and sadly the African Methodist Episcopal Church of Charleston hasn't been the last, but if we all hold hands and vow to overcome, someday America will see the absolute end of racial intolerance. It's those who hate who are slowly fading from view - along with their beloved flag.
Please join me in remembering Birmingham and all of the other racial injustice that has wracked our nation and world over the centuries. It is time to put that strife to rest - in a museum somewhere along with the Confederate flag - and get on with the process of achieving the liberty and happiness that every human - everywhere - deserves.
Ballad of Birmingham
by Dudley Randall