Birmingham's New Legacy
How the work of Martin Luther King Jr. and the murder of Denise McNair led to our new secretary of State.
11:00 PM, Jan 30, 2005 • By SCOTT W. JOHNSON
WHEN MARTIN LUTHER KING JR. brought his campaign against segregation to Bull Connor's Birmingham, he laid siege to the bastion of Jim Crow. Birmingham was among the most segregated cities in the country at the time; King called it a city whose fathers had apparently never heard of Abraham Lincoln. Birmingham had also been the site of a horrific series of bombings of black churches and homes. In April 1963 King answered the call to bring his cause to the city. When King landed in jail on Good Friday for violating an injunction prohibiting demonstrations, he used the time to meditate on the counsel of prudence with which Birmingham's white ministers had greeted his campaign. King's "Letter from a Birmingham Jail" was the result.
Reading the letter 40 years later is a humbling experience. Perhaps most striking is King's seething anger over the indignities of segregation:
As it happens, Birmingham's Condoleezza Rice was 8-years-old when King wrote those words in the Birmingham jail. Her confirmation as United States secretary of State this past week closed a loop, even if no one seemed to notice.
Eight days after that Good Friday in 1963, King was released from jail. On May 10 he announced a historic desegregation agreement with Birmingham's business community. On the strength of his victory in Birmingham he led the March on Washington on August 28 and gave his great "I have a dream" speech on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. Only 18 days later, however, amid the continuing tumult over what King called Birmingham's "partial and grudging compliance" with the settlement terms he had secured, Birmingham was the scene of a bitter sequel to the events of that spring.
On September 15, 1963, Birmingham's Sixteenth Street Baptist Church was holding its annual Youth Day when a bomb exploded in the basement and killed four girls who had slipped out of Bible class early to lead the adult services later that morning. Among the four dead was Denise McNair. Had she lived, Denise McNair would be 53 today.
IN NUMEROUS FORMAL SPEECHES she gave and informal remarks she made while holding the position of National Security Advisor, Rice recalled her ties to Birmingham and to her "friend and playmate" Denise McNair. In the Vanderbilt University commencement speech she gave on May 17, 2004, for example, Rice said:
Rice added that "those fears were not propelled forward. Those terrorists failed."