historic church in store for revival

Birmingham, Alabama’s 16th Street Baptist Church, a hallowed place where a 1963 bomb blast killed four little girls at the height of the civil rights movement, will become a National Historic Landmark.

The church, which serves about 300 members, has raised $3.3 million in donations and pledges to stabilize the aging structure as it prepares to take its place on the list of the nation’s most prestigious landmarks. Contributions ranged from $5 to $300,000, says Neale Berte, co-chairman of the fund-raising and chancellor of Birmingham-Southern College.

The Landmarks Committee of the National Park Service made the nomination in April following a visit to the church and several letters of support from local and national leaders. The nomination was passed by the advisory board in September and is awaiting the signature of the secretary of the interior, said the Rev. Arthur Price, pastor of the church.

Though it still stands in the center of the city’s Civil Rights District, the building has its problems. Large cracks separate huge stone bricks, and pools of water collect in the basement whenever there are heavy rains. That’s what brought Berte into the picture — he saw the water on the floor while visiting the church and said, “We have to do something.”

Berte, along with Price and longtime church member Carolyn McKinstry, set in motion a plan to raise money, apply for historic landmark status, and seek a grant from the America’s Treasures Foundation.

The first phase of work has begun, including sealing the church so water no longer collects on the basement floor, stabilizing the building so shifts are minimized, and rebuilding the steps. It will take about six months to complete the first phase.

It was Klansmen who planted a bomb that ripped through the church where civil rights activists such as the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and the Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth often rallied to energize and mobilize marchers to protest injustice against blacks in the city.

Birmingham City Councilwoman Carole Smitherman was a friend of Denise McNair, one of the girls killed in the bombing. “That one act called upon the hearts of Christians to think about what was going on and the purpose of the activities surrounding the country in 1963,” she says. “The nation turned around and said, ‘We do not want to go down this path.’ Because of her place in the community, 16th Street Baptist Church should be a landmark, not just for Birmingham but for the entire country.”

“This church is important to all of us,” says Price, a Philadelphia native who has been at the church for almost four years. “It’s not just our church; it’s a vital part of this community and our history. By coming together to preserve it, we show the world how far Birmingham has come.”