Fifty years ago on the 15th of September 1963, the Ku Klux Klan planted a bomb at the 16th Street Baptist Church, Birmingham, Alabama, that killed four black girls attending Sunday school.
The Church was one of the primary institutions in the black community and became the organising centre for the local civil rights movement. The protest marches and sit-ins they organized in April 1963 produced retaliation and brutality from the police, and many residents disagreed with the settlement reached in May. Governor George Wallace told the New York Times that in order to stop integration Alabama needed a “few first-class funerals”, and the church became an obvious target. On the 15 September, a fortnight after Martin Luther King’s ‘I have a Dream‘ speech, members of a splinter group of the Ku Klux Klan planted a bomb at the church that killed the four girls, Addie Mae Collins, Carole Robertson, Cynthia Wesley and Denise McNair, injured several others, and wrecked the building, smashing the stained-glass windows. Mass violence broke out across the city, and the National Guard was called in to restore order.
The callous murder of innocent lives brought widespread condemnation and sympathy, and forced city leaders to deal with the racism. A $52,000 reward was offered for the arrest of the bombers, and Governor George Wallace offered an additional $5,000. Martin Luther King sent him a telegram stating that “the blood of four little children … is on your hands. Your irresponsible and misguided actions have created … the atmosphere that has induced continued violence and now murder.”
The bombing marked a turning point in the American Civil Rights Movement, having the opposite effect of what was intended, ensuring the passage of the Civil Rights Act in 1964 and the Voting Rights Act in 1965. However justice for the victims took much longer – although four individuals were immediately suspected, their prosecution stretched out over four decades.
News of the tragedy stirred John Petts, a stained glass artist, at his home in Llansteffan: “the news on the radio … left me sick at heart … as a father … I was horrified by the death of the children; as an artist-craftsman, hearing that the stained-glass windows of the church had been destroyed, I was appalled … and I thought to myself … what can we do about this?” “Could not some of us … join together in a positive gesture of Christian sympathy in the face of destructive evil, and, as a token, put back at least one of those windows.” He contacted David Cole, the Western Mail’s editor, who enthusiastically took up the idea and the next day the Western Mail launched a campaign with the headline: ‘Alabama: Chance for Wales to Show the Way”. It was agreed that individual donations would not exceed half a crown (12½ p). “We don’t want some rich man … paying for the whole window. We want it to be given by the people of Wales.” Money flooded in, the £500 target reached within days and the fund closed at £900.
A telegram was sent to the Rev. John Cross: ‘The people of Wales offer to recreate and erect a stained glass window to replace the one shattered in the bombing of your church. They do this as a gesture of comfort and support.’ A reply accepting the offer was received stating that ‘Wales was the only country to offer such direct and material assistance’.
John Petts was commissioned to make the window. “I agreed on condition that the work on the design would be my gift, the money collected going to the cost of making the window and transporting it to the United States.” He travelled to Alabama to discuss possible designs, but struggled “to create something truly worthy of … the simple issue of what one man does to another during his short spell in this shrinking world” “… it was clear that the window in its context of violence must make a statement and an impact both simple and strong – as positive and simple as Christ’s message”. “Eventually one idea grew in strength: the figure of a negro, yet of Christ too, a suffering figure in a crucified gesture, with one hand flung wide in protest, the other in acceptance … remembering the sight of a negro figure twisting under the assault of fire-hoses, his arms up-flung. The jets of water transfixing the figure became the bar of a Cross symbolising all violence.” As the Reverend Arthur Price explains, the representation of Christ as a black man was controversial “for many people in the white community during that time, to say that Jesus Christ was black and of African descent would be blasphemous”. Patterned across the base of the design are Christ’s words “You do it to Me”, spelling out the Christian message of brotherly love. Below are the words “Given by the people of Wales, UK MCMLXIV”.
John Petts used deep blues and purples that glow in the strong light, the figure outlined in an abstract cross of light coloured glass. A rainbow crowns the figure’s head, promising the end of the storm and symbolising racial diversity and unity. The design was approved, and the completed window displayed in Cardiff before being shipped to America. John Petts, David Cole and the Mayor of Cardiff sent a telegram to the dedication service on Sunday 6th June 1965: “The thoughts of the people of Wales will be with you during your dedication service. May the Wales Window symbolise the reaffirmation of Christian love and unity”. At the service pastor John Cross said that: “it might serve as a constant reminder that there are persons in the world whose hearts are filled with love and brotherly kindness.” Click here to see a photograph of the window.
The church has become an important historical landmark, attracting thousands of visitors, and the window is regarded as one of the key icons of the American Civil Rights Movement, a powerful protest against intolerance and injustice.
John Petts’ designs for the Wales Window were donated to the National Library of Wales in 1970. They are being digitised at present, and will be displayed on the Library’s Digital Mirror.
Morfudd Nia Jones