Kids in Birmingham 1963 was created during the 50th anniversary of the “Year of Birmingham,” a turning point in America’s struggle for Civil Rights. This is a site for people to tell their personal stories of coming of age in that turbulent time, stories that may otherwise be left out of the history.
Jim Lowe was in Sixteenth Street Baptist Church the day it was bombed on Sept. 15, 1963. He was 11 years old at the time. A Birmingham native, Lowe is the son of the prominent musician and jazz historian, J. L. Lowe and Roberta Lowe. He graduated A.H. Parker High School as Valedictorian and was a cum laude graduate of Birmingham Southern College receiving a B.A. in Business Administration.
He was called into the ministry at the age of six. After 20 years of trying to live life his way, he finally submitted to the will of God in 1978. He became an associate minister of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church and later Minister of Music at the Macedonia 13th Avenue Baptist Church.
Now, Bishop and Senior Pastor at Guiding Light Church in Birmingham he shared his feelings in 2013 about that painful day in an interview on the 50th anniversary where he described how he experienced the bombing.
How many children and adults survived the bombing?
“I don’t know. However, we are expecting at least 20 of the children that survived, that are now adults, to be at our church on Sept. 14 (2013). It is the first gathering of survivors to honor them. For us, the survivors, this reunion will be a much-needed and anticipated time of healing.”
Where were you 10:22 a.m. Sept. 15, 1963?
“I was in a Sunday School room two to three doors down from where the bomb was placed that killed the four girls.”
What do you recall about the event?
“At the time, I was with several of my other Sunday School classmates. I remember very clearly, we were holding small American flags in our hands and mock parading around one of the classroom tables. We were poking fun at our then Governor George Wallace. Each one of us took turns at making jokes about his schoolhouse stand to block the entrance of Blacks at the University of Alabama. We talked about how he was humiliated by the federal government and he had to move out of the way. I don’t remember any of the words but I know they were not kind words that we spoke about George Wallace. We did not like him.
“As we were making fun of him, all of a sudden, I remember a loud deafening noise and seeing glass flying out of the windows to my left. Instinctively, I turned my back and shielded my head with my arms to protect myself from whatever it was that was happening. From that moment on I lost an awareness of my friends that were in the room. It was as if a dark cloud had enveloped me. I could see but just a few feet ahead of me. There was the sound of ringing in my ears and of muffled voices yelling and screaming of which I could make no sense. I had no idea of what was happening nor concept of how much time I was in the room or in the building itself.
“When I exited the room I saw a great cloud of dust and/or smoke. Directly in front of me I saw one of the Sunday School teachers crouched under a table with her arms embracing my younger five-year-old sister. I could see the fear on their faces and in both of their eyes. Seeing them crouching, and having seen many war movies, I responded like I saw in the movies and ducked low also to the floor. I knew there was some type of danger but I didn’t know what it was.
“My next thought was for my other sister. If there was some type of danger, where was she? I began looking around to see if I could find her to see if she too was okay. To this day, I don’t know where it was that I did see her, but upon finding her I had done what I felt I should have done. Then, I began looking to see if there was anyone else that might have been in trouble or needing help. Finding none, I exited the church.
“Upon getting to the lower outside of the church, my next observation was seeing the policemen and many people gathering around. It seems to me that I have a memory of the police roping off the area but it is with confidence I remember my thoughts of ‘How did they get here so fast? Was it a fire? Was it some type of electrical accident? Did a boiler explode?’ I had no idea of what was going on. As I stood near the door of the church someone came up to me and told me I was bleeding from my back. He asked me if I was okay. I told him yes and then I noticed that I was also bleeding from cuts on my left arm. I don’t remember being in pain.
“As I stood outside pondering what had just happened, I heard voices of many people crying, wailing and shouting but then, distinctively I heard the voice of my mother crying out my name. “Jimmy! Jimmy! Oh Jimmy!” I turned to see her coming towards me, dressed in what looked like a house robe and her house shoes, with tears in her eyes. Feeling the obvious anxiousness and agony yet relief in her voice as she embraced me continually crying my name, I uncontrollably began to cry. It was then that I began to sense the type of danger that I had been in.
“As she continued to hug me tightly, my father came up and asked had I seen my sisters? I told him Betty and Leria were okay. I still to this day can feel my mother’s cries of relief when I made that statement. To this day I still choke up remembering her voice.
“It is at that point that my memory goes dark. I remember very little after that. I don’t remember how I got home but I do remember being told to stay in the bed. I was in the bed when I heard my mother and father along with my aunt in the other room listening to the radio. I could not hear what was being said on the radio but I will never forget the cries of my mom, and my aunt as they listened to the news and the reality of what had happened to those four girls.”
How did you physically survive? Were you injured?
“Yes, I was injured but not in a life-threatening manner. The scars on my arm healed but I still have feelings on my back of places where I was cut that itch from time to time. Whether this has anything to do with the bombing or not, I cannot be sure.”
How did the event impact your life emotionally, spiritually, and in other ways?
“I came to grips with the reality of the depravity of mankind and the evilness of the heart of man. How could people be so vicious and so hateful that they would place a bomb in a church and then set that bomb at a time to go off when innocent children were in Sunday School?
“Good is relative. Did not the people that planted the bomb think it was good for their cause? Are not wars started and fought by good men on the premise that their causes are right and just?
“I have often heard the statement about the goodness of mankind. I don’t believe in that. The bombing taught me by firsthand experience of the hatred and inhumanity of man toward his fellow man. I became cynical regarding this life and the ability of man to deal righteously with his brother.
“However, the bombing and the deaths of the four girls did turn me in the direction of listening to hear the Holy Spirit. It encouraged me to start doing things that would change the hearts of mankind. It is in the heart where the evil resides and unless the heart is changed by a personal relation with Almighty God through Christ Jesus no change will occur. Today, I do not look for good in any man, I look for the God in him.”
How does the event you lived through impact you today?
“I have a desire in my heart to do all I can to help people to come to a true sincere love and respect of one another and deal with differences in such a way that tragedies like this will never have to occur again.”
What do you do today?
“I am a minister of the gospel message of Jesus Christ.”
What are your thoughts about those who died? Did their deaths have meaning?
“They became martyrs. And like the early martyrs of the church, their deaths started a movement, a movement for change that could not be stopped.”
How can we honor their memories?
“These were four young innocent girls. We can honor their memories by recognizing that any time there is hatred of any human being, there is the unpleasant reality that even the innocent will be hurt. We can honor them by learning to overcome our biases and hatred of one another and learn to forgive and allow God to administer true righteous judgment.”
How big an impact did the bombing at your church have on America in terms of turning the corner on the effort for Civil Rights?
“That explosion ignited an even greater explosion. An explosive movement that changed the heart of a nation.”
How important is forgiveness, not only in relation to this bombing, but for Civil Rights and for the future of our nation? Explain the process of forgiveness in your own life.
“Forgiveness is crucial. If we do not forgive, how can we ourselves expect to be forgiven? The great physical danger of unforgiveness is if we do not forgive then we ourselves are subject to commit acts of atrocity as grievous as those committed against us.
“Forgiveness is crucial because it is the first step towards our own healing.”