Help is needed to preserve a stained-glass window linking Wales with one of the most iconic sites of the Civil Rights Movement in America.
It was a gift from the people of Wales to the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama following a bombing in September 1963 orchestrated by the Ku Klux Clan killed four young girls attending Sunday school there. Designed and crafted by Wales-based artist John Petts and given as a ‘national gesture of good will’, the Wales Window of Alabama was paid for largely by the donations of Welsh schoolchildren after Petts and then Editor of the Western Mail David Cole launched a nationwide campaign in the paper appealing for donations. The window, one of the first depictions of a black Christ in the Deep South was unveiled in 1965 and has become one of the most famous landmarks of America’s Civil Rights Movement.
On the morning of September 15th1963, just a fortnight after Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his dream of hope on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, an explosion ripped through Birmingham’s 16th Street Baptist church, an organising centre for the Civil Rights Movement’s Children’s Crusade. Around two hundred congregants were inside. The majority of them children.
Much of the building was destroyed, the stained-glass windows shattered, with the face of Jesus in the main window blown clean out. Four of Birmingham’s daughters – 14 year-olds Carole Robertson, Addie Mae Collins and Cynthia Wesley and 11 year-old Denise McNair – were never to return home to their families.
“The tragic death of four little girls in the bombing of 16th Street Baptist Church diminished our world in ways that we cannot fathom,” says church pastor Rev. Arthur Price. “Yet, this terrible act of terror motivated a movement to support the passage of long overdue civil rights changes.”
With fears that the Wales Window could be damaged by Alabama’s stormy weather, the church is competing for national grant funding to preserve its historic stained-glass windows along with its bell towers and cupola.
It is one of 20 finalists in a competition among equal rights sites throughout the U.S, run by American Express and The National Trust for Historic Preservation, in collaboration with Main Street America. The grant winners will be decided through a public vote during a month-long campaign ending on the 26th of October.
“The 16th Street Baptist Church is a symbol of hope,” says Birmingham Mayor Randall Woodfin. “While it reminds us of a painful past that we must never forget, it also proves how far we’ve come. Through its doors enter people of all colours, classes and backgrounds to experience today’s Birmingham – a place where, despite our differences, we work together. We unite as a city, region and state to support this sacred place.”
The call for public support to help ensure the preservation of the Wales Window is echoed by Dr Ted Debro, a tour guide at the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church, who tells the story of Wales’ gesture of friendship during a time of great pain to visitors from all over the world.
On the day of the bombing, Debro was a student in Atlanta and attended the Ebenezer Baptist Church, where he listened to the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. deliver a sermon. He remembers the moment when King paused to share the tragic news from the pulpit.
“We don’t want the window disturbed in any sort of way,” he says. “The Wales Window is a message of reconciliation. It’s always the most memorable part of my tour.”
To support the 16th Street Baptist Church go to VoteYourMainStreet.org. Voting is open until October 26th.
The historic sites with the most votes will receive a share of the $2 million in preservation funding. Winners will be announced on Oct. 29.
Read more about Wales’ incredible connection with the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church and the story of the Wales Window here.