On the 15th of September, 2015, the 52nd anniversary of the notorious Birmingham Church Bombing, the College of Charleston’s Race and Social Justice Initiative held a special program at Burke High School featuring three sisters of Addie Mae Collins, one of the four young girls killed in that heinous attack. The sisters spoke movingly and graphically about their experience and the effects that the trauma had on their subsequent lives. From positions of deep faith they all urged their audience to move towards forgiveness and love. Professor Bernard Powers, a history professor at the College of Charleston who is working on a history of the African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church delivered the following speech, contextualizing the 1963 bombing and 2015 mass shooting at Mother Emanuel church in Charleston. Professor Powers has graciously given permission for me to publish the text of his remarks on the Jubilee Project blog.
“The Church is the Alpha and Omega of all things.” The Significance of the African American Church
Introductory remarks at Burke High School, Charleston, South Carolina, September 15th, 2015
In 1849 Martin R. Delany one of the great nineteenth century African American antislavery leaders wrote to Frederick Douglass, another legendary black leader and made the following observation: “As among our people generally. . . the Church is the Alpha and Omega of all things” (Quarles, Black Abolitionists 69). It is the beginning and it is the end. And what this means is that it is impossible to understand the history of African people without understanding the spiritual component of their lives. And in America Africans became Christians, but this is a more complex story than many realize, because when they eventually received Christianity they recast it: they made it uniquely their own, and fashioned it into a powerful tool of liberation. That process often began under the cover of darkness and continued into the wee hours of the morning, when the people snuck out into the woods and hid away on their prayin’ ground, where they opened their hearts and made their greatest desires known to God. And FREEDOM from slavery was their greatest wish. So Christianity for African Americans has always been associated with freedom–both spiritual and physical freedom. The 18th-century slave Olaudah Equiano tells us in his biography that once he realized it was God that controlled his destiny, he said, “I began to raise my fear from man to him alone, and to call daily on his holy name with fear and reverence.” To put it another way, remember the words of that old spiritual which says: “Before I’ll be a slave, I’ll be buried in my grave, and Go home to my Lord and Be free.” When these people read the Bible they saw over and over that the God they worshiped was the liberating God, who stood with the oppressed. This was the same motivating force that gave us Harriet Tubman, Sojourner Truth, and Bishop Richard Allen the founder of the first African American religious denomination in the U.S., the A.M.E. Church. Allen would say that God was not far away but was “near at hand.”
And they saw how near he was in April of 1861 when the first shots of the Civil War shook the South to its very foundation. And when the enslaved people heard it, they knew it was the sound of their liberation; it was their God writing a new chapter in their history, the first page of which was entitled FREEDOM.
And old black congregations like that of Emanuel were resurrected, and later new ones would arise. They were sites of liberation much like the Freedom Schools of the 1960s and they were similarly attacked in the 1860s and 1870s. But their assailants were on the wrong side of history; the onward march of the black church could not be impeded, and the eventual result was new congregations like the one on 16th St. in Birmingham. These churches proliferated throughout the South. They were special places where despite everything going on in the world black people could assert their independence; they could chart their own destiny, and could develop their own values and worship God in the way that Africans do. These were sacred places, places of refuge and joy where one could “Come out the Wilderness leaning on the Lord.” These were places of education where especially in the rural areas, the first schools for African Americans were organized. These were places that spawned new generations of black leadership extending from the era of emancipation down to the near past and present. The slave fought for physical freedom, and in the 20th and 21st centuries the struggle has been for social democracy, and human and civil rights. The greatest symbol of those efforts remains Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., but he represents church men and women across the nation who preceded him and those that are still engaged in this vital work.
And so for these reasons an assault on a church and church people goes to the very heart of the African American community, and it reveals the vulnerability of us all as a community of believers. However, vulnerability, precariousness, and weakness are not what we are left with. That’s in part because of the people who have graciously agreed to be here with us tonight. Bound together by two vicious attacks separated by 52 years and hundreds of miles, they have from their own separate locales showed us that the GOODNESS OF GOD CAN STILL BE SEEN IN THE LAND OF THE LIVING. Each and every one of them might have just cursed the darkness in the midnight of the worst trial they ever faced, but they didn’t do that. And they didn’t because they know the words of that old gospel song entitled “He didn’t bring us this far to leave us.” So they didn’t merely curse the darkness, THEY LIT CANDLES OF HOPE AND FORGIVENESS AND PERSEVERANCE. And these candles tonight illuminate the way for us to emulate them and release the better angels of our own individual selves, as we do the work that has been placed before our hands.
Bernard E. Powers