The Magazine of The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America


Remembering Birmingham

Lutheran pastor was leader in civil rights movement

Fifty years ago, the murder of four girls as they prepared for Youth Sunday at the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Ala., became a pivotal point in the march for freedom and justice. Just before worship on Sept. 15, 1963, a bomb exploded through the church basement killing Addie Mae Collins, 14; Denise McNair, 11; Carole Robertson, 14; and Cynthia Wesley, 14. 

Fifty years later, and just days before leaving for Birmingham to commemorate that tragedy, Joseph Ellwanger, an ELCA pastor, visited with The Lutheran from his Milwaukee home about that day and the events of 1963, including Martin Luther King’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” the Birmingham Children’s March, and the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. 

Ellwanger, then pastor of St. Paul Lutheran Church in Birmingham, was teaching an adult Bible study and Chris McNair, Denise’s father, was leading the children’s classes when they heard the explosion. A messenger delivered the news that Denise was a victim.

The Children’s March and the girls’ deaths impelled then-President John F. Kennedy to call for legislation that would become the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

Violent racial oppression was the norm at that time, Ellwanger said. The all-white police force’s response to the bombing of African-American church buildings and homes was to tell the pastors to leave quickly before the next bomb.

Ellwanger was the only white pastor among the town’s clergy to meet with King when he came to Birmingham in January 1963 to organize a campaign to confront the violence and racial segregation. Their Birmingham Project C (for “confrontation”) called on King and others to sharpen their critique of the status quo. Organizing led to lunch-counter sit-ins, marches on city hall, and demonstrations at stores to protest segregated shopping practices.

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