Reflections on 9/11
A quiet, bright, sunny, September morning.
People were going about their routine business. The warm sun’s glow seemed to comfort all.
Suddenly in a horrifying instant the peace was shattered — a loud explosion, screams, flames spewing out of windows, smoke clouding the streets obscuring vision amidst the panic and chaos.
Sirens screeched as police and firefighters rushed to the scene while people frantically searched for loved ones in the mass of confusion.
In that terrible moment more than brick and mortar, more than glass — even more than lives were shattered. Peace and hope and freedom from fear were also torn apart that September morning.
The Date: September 15, 1963
The Place: 16th Street Baptist Church; Birmingham, Alabama
The Dead: 14-year-old Addie Mae Collins; 14-year-old Cynthia Wesley;
14-year-old Carole Robertson and 11-year-old Denise McNair
The Injured: Some 20 others, 10-year-old Sarah Collins who lost her right eye
This act of terrorism was by no means the first on American soil and far from the first in Birmingham, where there had been three other bombings in 11 days following a federal court order that had mandated the integration of Alabama’s school system. In the previous 18 years there had been at least 50 bombings there. It should come as no surprise that the town was nicknamed “Bombingham.”
Subsequent violence in the city led to the killing of two Black boys, one by police bullets, prompting the National Guard to be summoned in to restore order.
This came just thee months after the assassination of Medgar Evers, for whom the college is named. Evers was a civil rights activist and an NAACP Field Secretary.
As we mourn the losses of those who died on September 11, 2001, and honor those who were involved in heroic acts on that day, we should not lose sight of the fact that acts of terrorism in America did not begin on either of those September days.
The moral outrage over the vicious murder of four little girls who were sitting in Sunday school, led to outrage around the country. It helped provide a momentum of support behind the struggle for equal rights and end to segregation. Within two years there came passage of the Civil Rights act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Bill of 1965.
What then has been the legacy of September 11, 2001? What can we point to that has spawned some lasting good?
Many may express despair with reports of acts of harassment and violence against Middle Eastern and Muslim people here in the United States. Or the feelings and attitudes of apprehension and suspicion that many harbor since the September 11 attacks. Those unfortunate facts cannot be denied.
Then came the 10th anniversary commemoration. I was stuck by the images of the powerful and tasteful memorial at the World Trade Center site, as well as the progress made on the new towers being built. It occurred to me that we are all in a rebuilding process.
It is a rebuilding of the spirit of America and of freedom that cannot be destroyed by bullets or bombs. It is a freedom that the people in Birmingham and places throughout the south sacrificed so much for. They managed to build more than the buildings – they rebuilt their faith and dedication to freedom.
And that is what I see happening here in New York City.
When you look closely — when I walk the halls of Medgar Evers College and the streets of its Crown Heights community, I see something happening. I see a glass that is more than half full with students and faculty, and staff and folks on the block, learning, working, playing and living together. People who are trying to manage, people trying to succeed and excel.
The rebuilding is usually not a dramatic process, but it is evident in those most simple, routine, things.
After all isn’t that what freedom is — being able to go about your routine in peace? Shopping, working, playing, socializing, traveling – even going to Sunday school on a bright September morning?
And although there is still much rebuilding to do, when I look at Medgar Evers College’s diverse community I know that we are all sharing in the rebuilding Medgar’s dream and that of many others out of the some dark days of our past.
Dr. William Pollard is president of Medgar Evers College – http://www.mec.cuny.edu