Cullman Times. September 19, 2023.
Editorial: Atrocity usually begins with dehumanization
With the 60th anniversary of the 16th Street Baptist Church terrorist bombing, it’s a good time to remember that atrocities spring almost universally from a common source — a willingness to declare a community of people as something less than human.
Go ahead. Name a historical atrocity.
The Holocaust began with the dehumanization of Jews.
Slavery? The dehumanization of Black people.
Colonization? The dehumanization of African people, South American indigenous people, and Asian people.
The Armenian genocide of 1914. The Rwandan genocide in1994. South African apartheid. The Jallianwala Bagh massacre of 1919 in Amritsar, India.
The Tulsa race massacre. The Rosewood, Fla., race massacre. The Ocoee, Fla. race massacre. The Chicago race massacre. There were a lot of those.
The Trail of Tears and the genocide of indigenous people in North America. The genocide of indigenous people in Australia. There were a lot of those too.
History is replete with the chronicles of civilizations that imposed their will to claim the land —and the lives — of those with less power.
And almost all of those accounts began with the oppressors marginalizing and dehumanizing their victims. It’s a prerequisite.
You can’t deprive others of life, land and liberty without convincing yourself that your people are superior and your victims are getting what they deserve.
The 16th Street Baptist Church bombing, on Sept. 15, 1963, sprang from that same poisoned well.
Members of the Ku Klux Klan targeted a Black church, killing 14-year-olds Addie Mae Collins Denise McNair and Carole Robertson, and 11-year-old Cynthia Wesley.
It’s easy to see this as atrocity at its worst, as dehumanization so pervasive that the lives of children are worth less than white supremacy.
The deaths of Collins, McNair, Robertson and Wesley shocked the nation and motivated the federal government to pass the Civil Rights and Voting Rights acts.
It’s difficult to strip children, the very image of innocence, of their humanity. But atrocity and the dehumanization that spawns it is not history. It’s current events.
Sixty years may seem like a long time, but it’s less than a lifetime ago for Sarah Collins Rudolph, who was in the 16th Street Baptist Church when racist terrorists blew it up. Collins Rudolph, featured in a story written by CNHI’s Asia Ashley and published recently in The Cullman Times, sustained severe injuries in the explosion but survived.
The youngest victim, Wesley, would be 61 now.
Dehumanization of marginalized communities is still with us. Political and social forces are at work delegitimizing people because of their skin color, sexual orientation, gender identity, faith and other immutable characteristics.
Sixty years after the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing, we still need to watch out for the root cause of atrocity.