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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
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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:

I guess it is easy for those who have never felt the stinging darts of segregation to say, "Wait." But when . . . you suddenly find your tongue twisted and your speech stammering as you seek to explain to your 6-year-old daughter why she can't go to the public amusement park that has just been advertised on television, and see tears welling up in her eyes when she is told that Funtown is closed to colored children . . .

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:

I grew up in Birmingham, Alabama, before the Civil Rights movement--a place that was once described, with no exaggeration, as the most thoroughly segregated city in the country. I know what it means to hold dreams and aspirations when half your neighbors think you are incapable of, or uninterested in, anything better.

I know what it's like to live with segregation in an atmosphere of hostility, and contempt, and cold stares, and the ever-present threat of violence, a threat that sometimes erupted into the real thing.

I remembered the bombing of that Sunday school at 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham in 1963. I did not see it happen, but I heard it happen and I felt it happen, just a few blocks away at my father's church. It is a sound that I will never forget, that will forever reverberate in my ears. That bomb took the lives of four young girls, including my friend and playmate Denise McNair. The crime was calculated, not random. It was meant to suck the hope out of young lives, bury their aspirations, and ensure that old fears would be propelled forward into the next generation.

Rice added that "those fears were not propelled forward. Those terrorists failed."