On September 15, 1963, the Birmingham 16th Street Baptist Church was bombed by the KKK in a horrific act of racially motivated violence. The bomb detonated from outside, caving in walls and spraying bricks and mortar onto the over 200 parishioners participating in Sunday services. Four young girls were killed -14-year-old Addie Mae Collins, Cynthia Wesley and Carole Robertson and 11-year-old Denise McNair. Over 20 people were injured.
It took until 1977 for anyone to be brought to justice, after Alabama Attorney General Bob Baxley reopened the investigation and Klan leader Robert E. Chambliss was finally brought to trial and convicted of murder. He died in prison in 1985. In the 1980's, two other former Klan members, Thomas Blanton and Bobby Frank Cherry, were finally brought to trial. Both were convicted. A fourth suspect, Herman Frank Cash, died before he could be brought to trial.
Joe Biden visited the church today on the 56th anniversary of the horrific crime, and gave a powerful speech on loss, tragedy, racism and what we need to do to move forward, both from the past and the current racism on the rise in our country.
When my first wife and daughter were killed and my two boys badly injured in a car accident. I faced like many of you a defining moment - walk away from public life or stay?
I chose to stay - before and after.
My life would never be the same. Lt. Colonel, my son, Major Beau Biden, died a painful long death. He made me promise that I would not withdraw. "I will be all right, Dad. Just promise me. Promise me.” He made me promise not to retreat like all of you have been asked by your beloved to not retreat from the fight.
A defining moment, before and after. Never the same.
Charlottesville. When I saw those torches and when I heard those chants and saw the hate on the march, I knew like all of you, although I had hoped it will never happen again. I knew like all of you that hate was on the march. I knew it was again in a defining moment from the nation and all of us and that our silence would be complicity. Our silence is complicity. Before and after Charlottesville, this nation will never be the same.
The psalm tells us "We remain endured for the night, but joy comes in the morning." The philosophers tell us faith sees best in the dark. Now, hate is on the rise again. We are in a defining moment again in American history. Who are we? What do we want to be? After Charlottesville, I said that I believe that we are in a battle for the soul of America. I say it again today; we are in the battle of the soul of America.
And here at the historic 16th Street Baptist Church, there is no more powerful reminder of that and no example of what is demanded of us in response. It is a battle we fought again and again. It is a battle that's claimed countless lives. Hate only hides, it does not go away. If you give it oxygen, it comes out from under the rocks. It can be defeated or drowned out, but it can't be totally vanquished.
We should realize that the revulsion of hate as its ugliest can summon us as a nation to do better and bring out the best in us. The white supremacists--so heinous they can't be ignored by any decent American--presents an opportunity to continue to make progress against systematic racism. I believe the American people are ready, just as they were after the civil rights act, in 1964, to take another step.
I am sure in the first hour after the bomb exploded, it was hard to see through the smoke and rubble of this church and our hearts. Hard to see through the smoke and rubble. To a day like today, as Dr. King eulogized those girls, perhaps not even he could imagine that a day nearly 50 years later when the nation's first Black President would award the Congressional gold medal --one of our highest civilian honors--for those young women. It is only with persistent efforts and faith for ourselves and the future may yet to be that can change things. That change comes. Sometimes slowly and sometimes, all at once. But, it continues. We saw my good friend, we have been friends for years. Doug, Senator Jones is here today. He, like many of you, he never give up on justice..., never. It didn't matter to him that almost 40 years have passed.
Doing the right thing does not tarnish with time.
We know we are not there yet, no one knows it better. My mom had an expression - "If you want to understand me, walk in my shoes for a mile." Those of us who are right, we can never fully, fully understand no matter how hard we try. We are almost at this next phase of progress, in my view. It is hard work. But there are almost 330 million Americans and I know there is nothing we can't accomplish if we stand together. Stand against hate. Stand at what at our best and our nation believes, honesty and decency, giving everybody a fair shot and not leaving anybody behind. Giving hate no safe harbor.
Be a part of something bigger than ourselves. That's who we are and who we are supposed to be. That's why I believe so passionately that we have got to work to bring this country together. This is the work demanded for the rebirth and renewal, 56 years ago, the Sunday school's lesson was to love and forgive. Reverend Cross never got to give his lesson that day. Reverend, I don't know how many times right now you have done it. It will be done again today. We have to choose forgiveness again and again and god that takes incredible strength.
I will never forget traveling with President Obama to meet the families of your church at Mother Emanuel in South Carolina. A personal friend of mine was murdered. I lost my son Beau, only days earlier, but I wanted to be there with him. I watched in awe as President Obama addressed the community, as he's he sang with them "Amazing Grace" and he offered healing and solidarity as the community saw it. It was a Friday; I decided to stay because I wanted to go to the service on Sunday with my wife Jill, to attend the service. I sat through the service; I was buoyed by that congregation of the loss my family just suffered weeks earlier. It made us helpless. I was astounded by the "Amazing Grace," the families of the victims as they chose so quickly after their loss of a white supremacist murdering them to forgive the killer. I was dumbfounded. It made me believe strongly everything about my faith. A killer who's buying the wounds and their wrongs. Compassion. To be able to live again in a community after a horrifying rupture is astounding to me. Their example is a moral challenge that each of us in our lives.
My prayers this morning is at this moment when our nation must again must once decide once again who we are, what we stand for and we'll remember the strength of the community. We'll remember the moment that time stops and then remember everything that came after.