After the bombing of Birmingham’s 16th Street Baptist Church on September 15, 1963—an act of terror that killed four young girls during Sunday School and injured 22 others preparing for the church’s youth day—Martin Luther King, Jr. said he questioned if all the efforts toward peace and civil rights were worth it.
Was there hope?
Praise God, King did again find his hope. He remembered that, in the end, the prize would be worth the price, which included his own life.
When asked whether he still doubted or felt hopeless, King replied:
No, time has healed the wounds—and buoyed me with the inspiration of another moment which I shall never forget: when I saw with my own eyes over 3,000 young Negro boys and girls, totally unarmed, leave Birmingham’s 16th Street Baptist Church to march to a prayer meeting—ready to pit nothing but the power of their bodies and souls against Bull Connor’s police dogs, clubs, and fire hoses. When they refused Connor’s bellowed order to turn back, he whirled and shouted to his men to turn on the hoses. It was one of the most fantastic events of the Birmingham story that these Negroes, many of them on their knees, stared, unafraid and unmoving, at Connor’s men with the hose nozzles in their hands. Then, slowly the Negroes stood up and advanced, and Connor’s men fell back as though hypnotized, as the Negroes marched on past to hold their prayer meeting. I saw there, I felt there, for the first time, the pride and the power of nonviolence.
It’s a powerful story, no doubt.
One of the things that makes King’s retelling so interesting is the fact that he’d been a leader in the civil rights movement for almost a decade before this resilient march to the Birmingham prayer meeting. He’d been preaching and leading a crusade of nonviolence for years—from the Montgomery bus boycott of 1955 through to the beginnings of the Birmingham campaign in 1963. And yet here he says it wasn’t until that year’s march that he first saw and felt the incredible pride and power of nonviolence.
I don’t take this to mean King was acting against his better judgment for all those years. Nor that he didn’t know what he was doing, or worse, didn’t believe it.
I understand this to mean he knew the right even before he could prove it, which is a situation many of us find ourselves in—though perhaps in less dire circumstances.
King believed nonviolence was the way even before he experienced its full weight. He felt it in his bones before he saw it with his eyes. King trusted even before he saw the fruit.
How rewarding it must have been to see the “pride and power of nonviolence” in full display, despite the hardship they endured. How beautiful it is when conviction becomes certainty, and when paths of painful righteousness do indeed lead to golden streets.