A Twisted Piece of Stained Glass

Martin Luther King Day

Martin Luther King, Jr. Day always has a special resonance for me. I was just a child when my father gathered up a charred, twisted bit of the stained glass window from the rubble of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham that was bombed on September 15, 1963, killing four young girls. As Director of the Alabama Council on Human Relations, it was his job to act as a mediator between the black and white communities. As part of his job, he had worked with such luminaries as Andrew Young and Fred Shuttlesworth, and had met Dr. King. His lawyer wrote a book and devoted a chapter to my dad. I was very proud.

One of the few memories I have of his work during that time, 1961 to 1964, was traveling with my father to visit the mother of a young black boy who was shot off the back of his bicycle by a group of white teenagers driving by in a car. I can still picture the dirt yard, the small house, the large woman, little faces peering around from behind her apron. It was my first real look at poverty, and it had an indelible impact on my young mind.

For many years, that twisted fragment of stained glass graced my mother’s hutch, long after my father’s death. It was eventually given to the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute, and is a cherished object there. (My father was asked to speak at the inauguration of the Institute in 1992.)

Stained glass has been used for a thousand years to decorate churches, usually depicting the life of Christ and His disciples, an aesthetic symbol of hope and redemption. Growing up with a twisted and blackened bit of the 16th Street Baptist Church was a reminder of the violence that twists and distorts the human psyche, the distortion of racism and hatred, but also a symbol of hope. My belief was always that if people could talk and really communicate about the violence and hatred that is symbolized by that twisted clump of glass, racism could finally be eradicated. Obama appropriated the word “hope” in his campaign, and his election was, for many, symbolic of the eradication of racism. Of course, we need more than symbolism to eliminate racism, but talking about it is a start. It is my hope that we can have meaningful national conversations about racism and hatred, so that these evils can come to light and be, once and for all, a thing of the past.

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