BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (WIAT) — When the Freedom Riders made their perilous trek through Alabama in 1961, they had one “designated point of contact” to rely on in the Heart of Dixie: Bethel Baptist Church. Just years earlier, the church, pastored by Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth, became a sacred site in the history of civil rights in the US when it was bombed not once, but twice. Only a year later, it was bombed yet again.
This summer marks the anniversary of the second attack on Bethel Baptist Church in Collegeville, and its current pastor is speaking out on the legend and legacy of the bombing.
“The second bombing was really a follow up to the first,” Rev. Thomas Wilder explained to CBS 42. “The first bombing was a warning to Rev. Shuttlesworth to stop his resistance to segregation. He was not intimidated, so they thought they’d try it again.”
“The second bomb was placed next to the church, but a security guard was able to grab it and move it to a ditch across the street,” Wilder said. “It did explode, though, but only the church’s windows were blown out.”
From 1958 until 1980, no one was held accountable for any of the bombings. Eventually, white supremacist J.B. Stoner was convicted for his involvement. He served only three and a half years of a ten year sentence for the crime and was released in 1986.
Rev. Wilder said that the legacy of racial terrorism that culminated in the bombing of Bethel Baptist is still tangible in the United States.
“One of the biggest travesties now is that we have failed to teach the lessons of what happened to the younger generation,” he said. “And in not teaching, we are now repeating.”
Wilder said that, in some ways, racial hatred and division is worse now than before.
“History is repeating itself, and in some ways, it is more entrenched now,” Wilder explained. “It’s the same things happening, it just has a new face and a new name.”
Wilder said that the effort to ban the teaching of critical race theory in schools is evidence of this entrenchment.
“Those who don’t want to feel so bad try to paint everything with a broad brush,” he said. “They need to realize that teaching about these things — about what actually happened — is not an indictment of the whole race.”