Sunday’s 50th anniversary of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church bombing was a time for most people to look back.
For Marie Mullen – who would have been at the church that day if a little voice hadn’t steered her elsewhere – it was a time to try to reach today’s black youth, who face more threats from one another than from the Ku Klux Klan.
Mullen, director of theater workshop ministry at Mount Olive Baptist Church, put on a 10-minute excerpt from an unfinished play. She has been carrying it around in her head since a series of church arsons near Birmingham, Ala., in 2006 resurrected memories of the horrific 1963 bombing there that killed her friend and three other black girls.
Sunday’s performance included four young girls dressed in white, as well as a heart-wrenching funeral re-enactment with grieving relatives that had church members dabbing their eyes.
Fifty years ago, Mullen attended the funeral of her childhood friend, Addie Mae Collins, and two of the other three victims. Mullen, 13 at the time, had gotten her parents’ permission to attend church with Addie on the day of the bombing, but at the last minute, something told her to go instead to her own St. Paul Methodist Church. Days later, she was at Sixteenth Street Baptist, anyway – to bury her young friend.
Today, there are similar funerals with similar heartbreak, involving youth with little inkling of 1963.
“If the youth really know and understand what happened so many years ago, there would be a higher value placed on life,” Mullen said of the gang problems and “senseless killings” that now afflict the black community.
Her aim is to use history to “bend the tree when it’s young.”
“I noticed that the young people were watching like a hawk when those young girls came down the aisle dressed in white,” she said of Sunday’s excerpt. “It grabbed the youth. … This is my goal.”
The church bombing production would be her sixth play, all of them focusing on history, and she’s seeking support to get it finished and take it to a wider audience in a community that tracks homicides the way other people track the Dow Jones.
“The youth need to know where we came from, where we’re going and why we have so many problems,” said Mullen, who moved here from Birmingham five years after the bombing. “Hopefully, kids will get on that computer. … They need to be made aware of what happened. We didn’t get where we are just by luck. It was blood, sweat and a whole lot of tears.”
The lack of knowledge about that struggle, and the victories, is one reason so many have so few aspirations today.
The Rev. William Gillison, pastor of Mount Olive, faults African-Americans for doing a poor job of passing on the kind of history Mullen is imparting.
“If you don’t know where you came from, it has an effect on where you’re going,” Gillison said.
The proof is in the number of young people going nowhere.
“We don’t have a clue as to who we are, where we came from, what we’re capable of doing,” Gillison said.
Culture, like nature, abhors a vacuum. If young people aren’t taught their real culture, they will pick up an alternative one from the streets. The results of that are all too obvious. It’s why knowing about what happened in 1963 – and before – is as important now as it was 50 years ago.