BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (CN) – While addressing churchgoers attending a service commemorating the 56th anniversary of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church bombing on Sunday, presidential candidate and former Vice President Joe Biden described the grief felt decades ago by the church as a defining moment in the history of the nation, and how the nation faces a similar moment today.
“I believe the American people were ready, just as we were after the Civil Rights Act in 1964, to take another step,” Biden said. “I’m sure the first hours after the bomb exploded, it’s hard to see through the smoke and rubble of this church and our hearts. It’s hard to see through the smoke and rubble to a day like today.”
Biden, who spent much of his speech gripping both sides of the lectern, drew parallels to the event to personal grief he felt when he lost his first wife and daughter in a car collision. His voice grew husky when recalling his son Beau Biden, who died in 2015 of cancer, asking his father never to retreat.
On Sept. 15, 1963, members of the Ku Klux Klan placed 10 to 15 sticks of dynamite against the 16th Street Baptist Church. Three Birmingham schools desegregated five days before, which caused some white residents in the city to riot and protest, according to reporting at the time by Southern School News. The bomb detonated at the church – known as an organization point for black residents to march for civil rights – between the time Sunday school concluded and the church service was about to begin.
Four girls who were in a basement bathroom preparing for the service died in the blast: Denise McNair, 11, Addie Mae Collins, Carole Robertson and Cynthia Wesley, all 14. About two dozen other church-goers suffered injuries.
As unrest further descended on Birmingham, two black boys, Virgil Ware, 13, and Johnny Robinson, 16, died that day.
Outrage over the bombing eventually led to the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act and a year later the Voting Rights Act.
In a twist of fate, the man who planted the bomb, Bob Chambliss, was arrested for illegally possessing dynamite soon after the bombing when police discovered 135 sticks of dynamite hidden in the Birmingham area, Southern School News reported.
It would be years before Chambliss faced trial for killing the four girls. After Bill Baxley became Alabama’s Attorney General in the ‘70s, he placed investigator Bob Eddy on the case, who eventually developed Chambliss’ wife as an informant.
Biden’s comments came days after the Democratic candidate debate Sept. 12 when, after he was asked what should be done to “repair the legacy of slavery,” he responded by proposing pay raises for teachers, have social workers help parents raise children and “have the record player on at night. Make sure the kids hear words.”
A few minutes before the service started, Biden slowly made his way up the right aisle of the church, speaking with and hugging worshipers. Sen. Doug Jones, who also prosecuted some of the Klansmen responsible for the bombing, walked by his side. The organ played slow chords.
Every year, the church remembers the bombing with a service on Sept. 15.
“Sunday’s a little more important because the actual event did happen on Sunday,” said Rev. Arthur Price, senior pastor of the church.
That’s when the church holds a mass Sunday school and revisits the lesson gave on that fateful day in 1963 – “A Love that Forgives.”
The last time the observance fell on a Sunday was in 2013, when 1,000 people visited the church of observe the 50th anniversary of the attack. On a given Sunday, 400 worshipers attend the church.
Price said remembering the bombing helps enlighten and educate society and “remind us that the church was involved in social justice in 1963 and that there’s still work to be done.”
Biden sat in the front row as U.S. Air Force Chaplain Lt. Col. Ruth Segres delivered the Sunday school lesson, driving churchgoers to their feet in two standing ovations, urging listeners to tell the story of the bombing, of a love that forgives.
Preaching in part from a passage from Job, Segres said the church, like the biblical character Job, was thrust into the spotlight after it was met with tragedy. But the character of both stories was God.
“Tell the story of their tears and their tickles, of humiliation and happiness, of disappointment and destiny,” Segres said. “Tell the story until racists repent and bombers bow down. Tell the story until the Klan quits, supremacists surrender and neo-Nazism is no more.”
Biden said the protests and violence in Charlottesville, the shooting in El Paso and attack in Pittsburg were examples of a time of rising hate.
“We’re in the battle for the soul of America. Here, the story of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church was no more powerful reminder of what’s at stake, no more poignant example of what is demanded of us in response,” Biden said.
Around 10:22 a.m. – the time the bomb detonated more than five decades before — the names of the victims were read and a bell chimed.
In a statement, Terry Lathan, chairman of the Alabama Republican Party, said that history teaches valuable lessons on how to improve the nation.
“Election time is once every two years but these issues and commemorations should be constant and not convenient due to the political calendar,” Lathan said.
Sharon Hicks-Bartlett, who rode to Birmingham from Chicago on a BMW 800cc motorcycle to visit the church, said after his remarks that she can overlook Biden’s gaffes because, his speech “conveys to you that this is a person that knows deep grief.”
Even this year, the memories of the attack were still raw. Yvonne Johnson stood outside the church with tears streaming from her face after Biden placed a wreath at the memorial on the side of the church were the bomb went off.
She went up the stairs to enter the church, but she went back down. Too many memories, good and bad, were coming back. The last time she entered the building was to attend the funeral of her friend, Addie Mae. They were in the same Girl Scout troop together.
When asked what Biden and Jones’ presence meant to her, “Politically, it’s the thing to do,” Johnson said. “They took a step in the direction that they need to, that would be a positive indication that maybe somehow we’ll get back on the right track. But it’s not up to them, it’s up to us.”