09/16/2013 09:11 am ET Updated Nov 16, 2013

50 Years Ago in a Church In Alabama

Yesterday was the fiftieth anniversary of the church bombing in Birmingham, Alabama that killed four young black girls, shocking our nation. As Andrew Cohen writes in the Atlantic,

The bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church was the most terrible act of one of the most terribly divisive periods in American history, and it's not too much of a leap to suggest that all that came after it -- including the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 -- would not have come as quickly as it did without the martyrdom of those little girls.

Cohen goes on to describe what happened the following day.

A young Alabama lawyer named Charles Morgan Jr., a white man with a young family, a Southerner by heart and heritage, stood up at a lunch meeting of the Birmingham Young Men's Business Club, at the heart of the city's white Establishment, and delivered a speech about race and prejudice... It was a speech that changed Morgan's life.

In his speech, Morgan said: "Four little girls were killed in Birmingham yesterday. A mad, remorseful worried community asks, 'Who did it? Who threw that bomb? Was it a Negro or a white?' The answer should be, 'We all did it.' Every last one of us is condemned for that crime and the bombing before it and a decade ago. We all did it."

The death threats against Morgan began almost immediately, and he was forced to flee Birmingham with his family for safety. But the curtain had been drawn back to expose the venomous heart of southern white racism, and it would never be closed in the same way again. As Cohen puts it, Morgan "bent the arc of the moral universe just a little bit more toward justice." In the midst of adversity, he looked beyond his fears to see the potential for good on the other side.

In their book Resilience: The Science of Mastering Life's Greatest Challenges, Steven Southwick and Dennis Charney, both leading American psychiatrists, talk about the need to reframe adversity. They say, "Ultimately, resilience is about understanding the difference between fate and freedom, and learning to take responsibility for one's own life."

Whatever comes our way, no matter how terrible, we need to understand the difference between fate and freedom. Both as individuals and as a nation, we need to stand up and take responsibility. No matter the obstacles before us, we still have options for how to respond. In choosing our path, we need to try to "bend the arc of our moral universe just a little bit more toward justice," as Morgan did.

Deep-seated prejudices are still hiding in plain sight all across our nation and around the world. Here at home, the hard-won provisions of the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act are under attack. When it comes to the situation in Syria, the sigh of relief over the proposed agreement on chemical weapons has drowned out the anguished cries of nearly seven million people who have been internally displaced or forced to flee as refugees, not to mention the families of the 100,000 dead. Both at home and abroad, we need to follow Morgan's example and do what we can.

Today as always, we stand at the intersection of prologue and possibility. Our challenge in religious terms is to open ourselves to the experience of the divine -- of being connected to everything: all that is present in our world, as well as all that is past and all that is possible. This experience will give us the vision to transcend the necessities of the past and embrace the possibilities of the future.

Then one day, after walking through the fire, we can look back and marvel that we were not consumed by it. We faced our fate, and found a way to be free.