Fifty years ago the16th street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama was bombed killing four African-American girls, among them Denise McNair, 11. THE LUTHERAN (10/13) commemorates this tragic event with an article: Remembering BIRMINGHAM: Lutheran pastor was leader in the civil rights movement. Joseph Ellwanger, pastor of St. Paul’s Lutheran Church “was teaching an adult Bible study and Chris McNair, Denise’s father, was leading children’s classes when they heard the explosion. A messenger delivered the news that Denise was a victim”. The McNair’s asked Ellwanger to participate in the services of the three girls and to lead in Denise’s private committal service. Recently the Ellwanger and McNair couples attended a service remembering the four girl’s lives. (We were clergy colleagues)
16th Street Baptist Church was bombed on Sunday, Sept 15th, 1963 by “racially motivated terrorism”. This proved to be the key turning point in the 1960’s Civil Rights Movement leading to the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
Ellwanger was the only white pastor among the local clergy to meet with Martin Luther King who came to Birmingham in January 1963 to “organize a campaign to confront the violence and racial segregation”. Birmingham Project C (“confrontation”) challenged segregation and racism with lunch-counter sit-ins, marches confronting city hall authority, and segregation in shopping practices . By April the campaign was loosing energy but revived when children were given the opportunity to march. As to why they wished to march Ellwanger observed: “They said, ‘We want to march for our freedom and for everyone’s”. In May over a four day period the youth walked downtown to discuss with authorities unjust segregation practices. Ellwanger notes the youth were instructed in Christian non-violent practices and “refrain from violence of fist, tongue and heart . . . They had a clear understanding that this was the movement for justice and truth that God had called them”. Leaving their classrooms and meeting at 16th Street Baptist Church, filing out of church 1000 children marched. The initial march was stopped by order of the head of police, “Bull Connor”, with fire hoses and police dogs to ward of the children. News and pictures of the Children’s March received worldwide attention. Ellwanger concluded: “I have no doubt the Children’s March and deaths were a significant chapter in bringing the Civil Rights Act of 1964 . . . In the face of racist action the amazing thing was the strong reaction of the Gospel, faith in God who will see us through not with vengeance but compassion.”
I was pastor of a town-gown pastorate from 1961-1963 in a church adjacent to the campus of Auburn University. it is in this context that Ellwanger and I shared ministry. Two particular examples of our relationship follow. They are taken from a piece written several years ago. It can be accessed on this site’s home page as FRED’S STORY.Title of the retrospective is: SHAPED BY HISTORY: Living in the deep South during the Civil Rights Revolution. Learning to distinguish between American Ideal and Reality.
“My installation was scheduled for Sunday afternoon, October 4, , 1959. In preparation for the service, I was asked to send invitations to Missouri Synod clergymen in Alabama. Without any thought of the distinction between black and white parishes. I sent the invitations to all pastors . . . Ellwanger was a white pastor of a black congregation in Birmingham. Ellwanger, rightly so, responded to the invitation by bringing with him members of his congregation’s laity. Shortly before the service began agitated ushers came into he sacristy and told me several black gentlemen were in the vestibule waiting to be seated. They asked me what should be done. I suggested they be seated in the back pew. What a pity that such a question and such an answer was necessary to address the situation.” On another occasion Pastor Ellwanger invited me to serve as Bible topic discussion leader at a black youth retreat at what is today Concordia College Selma. “Ellwanger served as organizer and director of the youth retreat. One afternoon our entire group of some fifty youth and two white pastors went on a long walk into the countryside. Our objective was to visit a farm of a successful black farmer to demonstrate what results from hard work and self-sufficiency . . . After visiting the farm we walked along the highway and came across a field where the remains of Civil War breastworks were clearly visible. Continuing our walk along the highway we were suddenly stopped by police officers. They obviously knew Pastor Ellwanger and his leadership with black youth. They inquired with a phrase clearly suggestive of Jim Crow realities and tactics of intimidation and fear: ‘What is this (N-word) march all about?’ They put pastor Ellwanger in the police car and took him to police headquarters in Selma for grilling and harassment. Later that day they released him.”
Joseph Ellwanger was a real mentor in shaping my Yankee lack of understanding through my personal experiences of Jim Crow’s reality of racial, social, cultural, and political racism supported by custom and law.