BIRMINGHAM, ALABAMA – Half a century ago in the deeply Southern city of Birmingham, a racially motivated attack on a black church left four young girls dead and helped galvanize a civil rights movement that changed voting laws across the United States.
For those with ties to that deadly event in Alabama, Wednesday’s shootings in a historic black church in Charleston, South Carolina, another deeply Southern city, echoed the tragedy and compounded the frustration that more progress has not been made.
“Now these people in South Carolina are going through what my parents went through,” said Lisa McNair, 50, the niece of one of the girls who died in the 1963 bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church.
In the Birmingham attack by four Ku Klux Klansmen, a bomb planted under the church steps killed four young girls as they changed into choir robes in the church basement. The Charleston rampage targeted a Bible study group.
Both attacks were racially motivated, and shocked a nation that was reeling with deeply entwined racial and societal tensions — lately focused on U.S. gun violence and police-related shootings of unarmed black men in several U.S. cities.
“Progress, what progress?” said Joanne Bland, 61, co-founder of a voting rights museum in Selma, Alabama. “It seems like we’re back right where we started and racism is still alive and well.”
Donald Jones, a professor of constitutional law at the University of Miami who teaches classes on the role of the civil rights movement, said he hoped the Charleston attack would “jar us awake to the fact that we do not live in a post-racial society.”
The Birmingham bombing is credited with serving as a major catalyst in the movement for racial equality and the passage of the federal Civil Rights Act of 1964, which bans racial discrimination.
Diane McWhorter, author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning book “Carry Me Home” about the civil rights battle in Birmingham in 1963, said she does not know if the Charleston shooting will galvanize a new civil rights movement, but hopes it will at least lead to more gun control.
“The only good I can see coming out of it is some kind of gun sanity,” she said. “Maybe the historic suffering of black people in this country will enable us to see the gun issue in a new light. . . . But I’m not holding my breath.”
Despite the parallels, the two attacks were met with starkly different responses by local authorities who reflected the political dynamics of their eras.
In 1963, Alabama was the center of a nonviolent civil rights movement led by Martin Luther King Jr. and others that was met with violence from the Ku Klux Klan and state and local officials, led by Gov. George Wallace, trying to enforce racial segregation laws.
While it took decades to prosecute the Birmingham bombers, authorities in South Carolina quickly arrested the suspected perpetrator of the Charleston shooting.
In Birmingham, four Klansmen were identified early on, but none went on trial until 1977, as investigators ran into a wall of silence. One of the suspects was never charged and died in 1994, while two others were jailed for life, the last conviction not coming until 2002.
Contrast that to a parade of politicians who loudly denounced the atrocity in Charleston, including South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, the daughter of Indian immigrants, who was moved to tears at a Thursday new conference.
“The Southern states are not the same as 50 years ago,” said Daryl Scott, a professor of U.S. history at Howard University, a historically black college.
The changes were monumental since the 1960s, said Priscilla Hancock Cooper, chief executive officer of the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute, across the street from the Baptist church where the 1963 bombing occurred in what the city now calls the Civil Rights District.
“Laws prevented blacks and whites from sitting together on a bus. They restricted blacks and whites from eating together in restaurants and even from playing games,” she said.
Birmingham today is a financially struggling city with distinct white and black neighborhoods, but its politics have been turned on their head in recent decades. Its last white mayor left office in 1979, followed by seven successive black leaders.
Meanwhile, South Carolina has gone from being “one of the most recalcitrant Southern states,” Scott said, to having not just a governor of color, but in 2014 elected the South’s first black senator since Reconstruction at the end of the Civil War.
“It’s sometimes in these tragedies that people of goodwill find their voice, realize that silence is not an option, and are touched,” said Marc Morial, president of the National Urban League.