Honoring Martin Luther King, the Civil Rights Movement, and its Soundtrack

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Honoring Martin Luther King, the Civil Rights Movement, and its Soundtrack

The Bombing of the 16th St. Baptist Church in Birmingham, Ala. Sept. 15, 1963


By Matt Silver

On this MLK Day, we honor not just Dr. King’s words and actions but those of the broader struggle for civil rights. And we do so, in our small part, by pairing the stories of that era with the artistic response they incited.

Undoubtedly, the tragedies of that period shaped artistic expression as much as the triumphs, if not more so. The 1963 bombing of the 16th St. Baptist Church in Birmingham, Ala. is no exception. We invite you to read a bit about the tragedy below and engage with the following  musical statements, handpicked by our on-air hosts for this MLK Day.

John Coltrane’s “Alabama”

Charles Mingus’s Town Hall Concerts

Ramsey Lewis’s “Wade in the Water”

George Adams’s “Going Home”

Babs Gonzales’s “We Ain’t Got Integration”

Max Roach’s “Let Thy People Go"

The 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Ala. Photo by Ted Tucker, Greater Birmingham Convention & Visitors Bureau.

September 15th, 2023 marked the 60th anniversary of the Civil Rights Era’s darkest moment. On Sunday morning, Sept. 15th, 1963, as congregants filled pews and Sunday school students changed into choir robes for a pastor’s sermon, which was to be titled “A Rock That Will Not Roll,” a bomb planted by four members of the local Ku Klux Klan tore through the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, killing four black girls between the ages of 11 and 14. 

Their names were Addie Mae Collins, Cynthia Wesley, Carole Robertson, and Denise McNair. Those girls would be women in their 70s today; who knows who they might have become, what they might have achieved, who their children and grandchildren might have grown up to be?

The problem, as Martin Luther King saw it, was of course one of racial animus, but it was bigger than that. The problem was of a soulless worldview.

Here’s how King put it in his eulogy for the four girls: “We must be concerned not merely about who murdered them, but about the system, the way of life and the philosophy which produced the murderers.” 

Soulless as the actions of the bombers may have been, they were counterproductive. 

The bombers targeted that particular church because it had been a gathering place for local civil rights activists who, shortly before the bombing, had reached an agreement with local officials to begin integrating local schools. This was something segregationists could not abide.

But when America saw four young children murdered–and scores of others injured–on a Sunday morning, in a house of worship, they were disgusted. And the tide of public sentiment shifted to support President John F. Kennedy’s civil rights agenda, which ultimately materialized into President Johnson’s landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964.

Collins, Wesley, Robertson, and McNair had died tragically–and brutally. But they had not died in vain. And the music we play today, during the NOON HOUR—by John Coltrane, by Charles Mingus, by Ramsey Lewis, George Adams, and Max Roach—honors them and everyone who fought and died for civil rights in America.

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