06/22/2015 11:40 am ET Updated Jun 22, 2016

In Charleston, Echoes of Birmingham and a Call to Action


"White Gunman Sought in Killing of 9 at Black Church in Charleston, S.C."

It reads like a headline from another age. From 1963, to be precise -- the year another appalling hate crime was carried out against a strikingly similar target.

That September, in Birmingham, Alabama, four little girls were killed when a group of white supremacists set off a bomb near the entrance to the 16th Street Baptist Church.

Many have noted the obvious parallels between that terrorist attack and the one that occurred last week: the horror of the act itself, the aftermath, and the lamentable loss of innocent life; the hatred that must have motivated such vain and deplorable violence; the targeting of a historic place of worship, a sanctuary at the heart of an African-American community, in order to inflict maximum pain -- and fear.

I thought of Birmingham myself, early Thursday morning, when I saw the sickening news. Two years ago, I spent a Sunday afternoon at 16th Street Baptist with then-U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder, who spoke to parishioners and assembled guests on the 50th anniversary of the day their church was bombed.

It was a moving and intensely personal service. During the week leading up to the event, as we made plans and preparations, the attorney general often reminded me: "This is for history."

He meant, I think, not only that he hoped his participation would be meaningful to those present, and to anyone who might reflect on that ceremony in the years to come, but that he felt the weight of it: of five long decades collapsed into a single, humid afternoon. Of four little bodies, broken in the rubble, and the women they did not live to become. Of a nation, torn and bloodied, stained with the sins of slavery and segregation, struggling to free itself from a hateful past.

As I prepared for the trip to Birmingham, I remember reading the famous column by Eugene Patterson, of the Atlanta Constitution, who wrote the day after the bombing that "[i]t is too late to blame the sick criminals who handled the dynamite. The FBI and the police can deal with that kind."

A line or two later, he continued:

We watched the stage set without staying it. We listened to the prologue unbestirred. We saw the curtain opening with disinterest. We have heard the play.

We -- who go on electing politicians who heat the kettles of hate.

We -- who raise no hand to silence the mean and little men who have their nigger jokes.

We -- who stand aside in imagined rectitude and let the mad dogs that run in every society slide their leashes from our hand, and spring.

We [...] are the ones who have ducked the difficult, skirted the uncomfortable, caviled at the challenge, resented the necessary, rationalized the unacceptable, and created the day surely when these children would die.

Half a century has passed since these words were written; since blind and vicious hatred claimed the lives of young Addie Mae Collins, Cynthia Wesley, Carole Robertson, and Carol Denise McNair.

Since then, we have done a great deal to reduce institutional discrimination across the country. We have, in fits and starts, invested racial equality with the full force of law. We have instituted protections for core civil rights, and we continue to open new fronts in this ongoing struggle.

This progress is undeniable, and it has redefined the nation over the past 50 years. Yet, as recent protests in Baltimore, New York, and Ferguson remind us, our work is anything but finished. Important battles rage on -- against the savagery we witnessed last week, at Mother Emanuel, as against subtler forms of discrimination, from the criminal justice system to boardrooms and ballot boxes across America.

There is much to be proud of in all that this country has achieved, and everything we've become, over the past five decades. Yet we too often indulge the fantasy that there is some immutable barrier that separates our sunny present from the hatred, and the horror, of the 16th Street Baptist Church.

The truth, of course, is that it takes only a single incomprehensible headline to thin the veil, draw us nearer to the darkness of our past, and collapse 50 years into the space of a dismal, deadly week.

The fact that the Charleston shooting suspect, Dylann Storm Roof, allegedly carried out these heinous murders with apparent dispassion -- after sitting with his victims for an hour, listening to their voices and learning about their lives -- makes this hate crime all the more chilling.

We are right to be shocked and appalled at his actions. We are right to be angry, or prostrate with grief.

But it is not enough merely to ache for the citizens of Charleston. It is not enough to mourn these nine innocent people, nor to seek justice against the man who murdered them. The FBI and the police, Eugene Patterson might remind us, can deal with him.

We, though, who have "set the stage" and "heard the prologue," are the ones who must contend with the broader implications of this monstrous crime. It is time to stop "skirt[ing] the uncomfortable" and deal with the pockets of hate, however isolated, that give rise to such violence. It is time to stop "rationaliz[ing] the unacceptable" and confront the conditions and public policies that allow racial animus to take expression in the pulling of a trigger.

Ours is an extraordinary country. It has changed a great deal -- for the better -- since the murders of four innocent girls in the segregated Birmingham of half a century ago. But the fact that those four might still not be safe in a black church even today, had they survived to adulthood, shows that we yet have a long way to go.