A friend from out of town came to visit, and I decided I’d take her to the Civil Rights Museum because it was her first time visiting Birmingham. And it happened to be Martin Luther King Day, so there was free admission. However, this also meant that there was a two-hour wait to get into the museum. We stood in the line anyway for a while and watched the parade go by, led by Bishop Calvin Woods singing “We Shall Overcome” through a megaphone. This would have been a powerful image, had it not been immediately followed by a high school marching band doing Solid Gold dance moves down the middle of the street.
We stood there and watched as the parade culminated at the 16th Street Baptist Church across the street, the church that served as a war room for the civil rights foot soldiers in Birmingham, the church that was bombed by the KKK in 1963, killing four young black girls, the church where Dr. King and Reverend Shuttlesworth inspired the people from the pulpit. As the parade wound to a close, the line to go into the museum barely moved, so we decided maybe it would make more sense to just come back the next day when it wouldn’t be as crowded, even though it would no longer be free to get in.
My friend then felt drawn toward the church and asked if we could just go in there. I said it looked like we could, but I didn’t know if there would be anything to see. It’s just a church, I said. She said, “Yeah, but it’s THE church.” So, mainly out of blind curiosity, we followed a crowd inside and up the stairs to the balcony. Before we could see anything, we could hear that a service was starting and we agreed that if we went in, we’d be committed to staying in there a while.
Bishop Woods was in the middle of giving his opening remarks when we sat down. There were a surprising number of empty seats. However, throughout the service people were coming and going constantly. And at the height of the celebration, there were only a few seats vacant, but a large number of people were standing in the back anyway as if it were a full house.
Next, Reverend Luther Williams gave an opening prayer, which was more of an improvised song than what I’m used to calling a ‘prayer,’ complete with backing of the house organist (who was amazing, by the way). As the invocation became more and more impassioned, multitudes of Amens and other interjections whooped out from the pews. I asked my friend if she’d ever seen anything like this before. She said she had not.
Bishop Woods came back and said a few more words about the historical events being commemorated, from the perspective of a man who was there and participated in those events. Then he introduced the Movement Choir. I think that’s when I started crying, and the tears kept streaming through much of the next two hours. I did manage to capture about 30 seconds of video on my phone.
One reason I was so moved was that I realized this is a group of people who do not take for granted their freedom, that do not take for granted the gift of being alive. These are not people who lie in bed for 16 hours agonizing over how meaningless their lives are like I often do. They don’t have time for that shit, and they make it meaningful. I was just overwhelmed by the passion for life that I was witnessing, from the speakers, from the choir, and from the audience.
Speaker after speaker made rousing, inspiring, animated, and colorful presentations, often moved by the spirit to burst out in song. The people in the pews danced, sang, clapped, and shouted out exultation. I’m not going to recap everything that happened. There was just too much. I’ve been to the Civil Rights Museum. It’s great. It’s moving. But this was the real thing–not a museum–a real civil rights rally featuring seasoned warriors of that movement. And that didn’t capture half of what was so incredible about it.
As we were leaving, my friend and I marveled at everything we had just witnessed and how we almost missed it completely, and at the fact that we could even just go in there and see it so casually. My friend said, “That’s the first time church has ever actually worked on me. Ever. It made me want to be a better person.” I felt that same way exactly.