Remembering Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s eulogy for 16th St. bombing victims

Published: Sep. 15, 2023 at 1:30 PM CDT
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BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (WBRC) - Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. gave hundreds of speeches in his life, and sadly, many were born out of tragedy.

“As sad as it is, Dr. King dealt with the idea of tragedy often,” says Barry McNealy, Historical Content Expert at the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute. “In the beginning of the movement his home in Montgomery had been bombed.”

It was the tragedy of the killing of the four little girls in the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing that brought Dr. King to the pulpit at 6th Ave. Baptist Church on Sept. 18, 1963, where he faced a delicate balancing act of eulogizing three of the little girls for the grieving families in the room, while also recognizing the catalyst this tragedy would be for the civil rights movement and which direction it would take.

“The voices of confrontation were growing louder and louder because of things like the bombing of 16th St. Baptist Church,” McNealy recalls. “So he had to be very choice in the words that he selected at that particular moment in time.”

“They are the martyred heroines of a holy crusade for freedom and human dignity,” Dr. King said of the four little girls. “They have something to say to every politician who has fed his constituents with the stale bread of hatred and the spoiled meat of racism.”

“We have to really go back to the week before, when Dr. King was first informed of the events of what had happened at 16th St. Baptist church. He looked up at the ceiling and yelled at the top of his voice to God was that the reason he had been brought to that particular place to witness the death of those little girls, and he became overwhelmed with emotion,” McNealy says.

Dr. King had to balance the need to speak to the greater crowd, with the need to minister to these specific families grieving a tragic loss.

“You gave to this world wonderful children,” Dr. King said. “They didn’t live long lives, but they lived meaningful lives. Their lives were distressingly small in quantity, but glowingly large in quality.”

“I think it’s very powerful because I think if you read it, his eulogy is in so many ways a continuation of the letter he wrote from a Birmingham jail,” McNealy says. “He connected ideas of the clergy and the liberal elite that were lacking in their support for change, he connected the ideas that he spoke in his letter from a Birmingham jail to this awful tragedy in this eulogy. He was basically saying it was time for us to change what we were doing in this country because hate was eroding our very social fabric.”

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