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Chris Honoré: Sept. 15, 1963 – Birmingham, Alabama

Early on the morning of Sept. 15, 1963, four men in a turquoise and white sedan stopped at the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Ala. At the time, no one took particular notice. It was only later that it was learned some 15 sticks of dynamite with a time delay had been planted under the steps of the church near the basement.

It was Sunday and church services would begin later that morning, at 11:00 am. The sermon that day was “A Love Forgives.” Five young girls — it was “Youth Day” at the church — were in the basement bathroom changing into their choir robes, combing their hair, preparing to go upstairs and join the congregation. They were children to be cherished.

At 10:22, a massive explosion shook the church, blowing a hole seven feet wide in the rear and leaving a crater five feet wide. Shards of concrete and wood were turned into shrapnel and the force of the blast threw the girls’ bodies through the air like “rag dolls,” killing four of them instantly — Addie Mae Collins (age 14), Carol Denise McNair (age 11), Carole Robertson (age 14) and Cynthia Wesley (age 14). One of the girls was so mutilated she could only be identified by the dress and ring she was wearing. The blast injured twenty-two others and shattered windows two blocks away.

The malevolent intentions of the bombers was not only to do as much damage as possible to the church — a symbol in Birmingham of the march toward equality by the Civil Rights Movement — but to time the explosion when people would be arriving for the morning service. It was estimated that just before 10:22 am there were 200 parishioners in the church.

White supremacists throughout Birmingham reveled in the death of the four girls and the damage done to the church. It was later established that the men who perpetrated this heinous hate crime were members of the Ku Klux Klan.

In 1963, the riptides of the Civil Rights Movement were being felt in Alabama and segregationists were prepared to commit whatever mayhem necessary to prevent the integration of public facilities and schools. There had been 80 unsolved bombings (none with fatalities) against black property in the years leading up to September 15. The opposition to equality was increasingly violent and vitriolic.

On the evening of June 17, 2015, Dylann Roof, 21, entered Charleston’s Emanuel A.M.E. Church and joined a prayer group of 12 parishioners. He asked to sit next to the Rev. Clementa Pinckney, senior pastor of “Mother Emanuel.” After an hour spent in fellowship and prayer, he took out a gun and shot and killed nine innocents including the Reverend Pinckney.

The initial response by many pundits and politicians was that Dylann Roof was an unhinged young man whose actions were born in that dark void of the inexplicable. References were made to Adam Lanza, 20, who fatally shot 20 children and six adult staff members at Sandy Hook Elementary School, or James Holmes, 27, who killed 12 people and wounded 70 in a movie theater in Aurora, Colo.

But in reality, Roof is not Lanza or Holmes. He didn’t enter the church alone, haunted by psychosis, but brought with him that same desiccated heart possessed by those who bombed the 16th Street Baptist Church — pinched white men who nurtured the familiar racist attitudes that have threaded their way through America’s history since antebellum slavery.

Roof’s online manifesto is the distillation of those attitudes, made manifest by Jim Crow, countless lynchings of black men, the Dred Scott ruling, and the belief in separate but equal as upheld by the Supreme Court in Plessy v. Ferguson.

There is, of course, the Confederate flag, a tangible symbol of the belief that slavery was not only worth fighting and dying for by the sons of the South, but of such righteous importance that secession was the only alternative.

Those blighted convictions are still with us, and that is what Dylann Roof carried with him as he sat with those nine unsuspecting A.M.E. Church members who had initially embraced him. No, Roof was not alone. The abhorrent ideology of racism, which formed the scaffolding of his rationale, was there as well.

Chris Honoré lives in Ashland.