Trayvon Martin, Oscar Grant and Birmingham 1963 

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  • Trayvon Martin

On Sept. 15, 1963, one of the most horrific acts of terror in our nation's history occurred early on a Sunday morning in Birmingham, Ala. To make a twisted political statement, the KKK had placed a bomb in the 16th Street Baptist Church. It was rumored that Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. would preach there the next morning. He did not.

When the bomb exploded the next morning, four little girls — 14-year-old Addie Mae Collins, 14-year-old Carole Robertson, 14-year-old Cynthia Wesley and 11-year-old Denise McNair — were killed. The tragic deaths of Trayvon Martin and Oscar Grant bring back memories of Birmingham and the many episodes of racial violence I saw as a child.

As I was seven at the time, I could not understand why anyone would bomb a church. My father, a military veteran who also served in the Alabama National Guard and stood duty at civil rights marches in the 1960s, offered me this short explanation: "People sick with hate did this."

Shortly after the bombing, President Kennedy federalized the Alabama National Guard, every unit in the state, to protect public schools from racial violence. The president feared more children would be killed.

It was a difficult and dangerous time in Alabama, due to the oppressive bigotry so ingrained in the thinking of the state's citizens and its elected officials. Although the bombing occurred 50 years ago, the world knows the names of the four black girls martyred in Birmingham. Their images will forever haunt the conscience of our nation.

As a U.S. Foreign Service Officer, I was asked on many occasions by citizens and government officials in my host countries about U.S. violence against minorities and questioned about our commitment to civil rights and social and economic justice. As I had lived in the state with the worst civil rights violations in the nation, I was uniquely qualified to speak about the racial violence I saw as a child in the 1960s — and my father's role in upholding law and order at civil rights marches, including Selma.

Although the bombing took place in Alabama, it is our nation that is held responsible. The four young girls are everlasting reminders of the terrorist past our country has to live with.

I was visiting colleagues in the Burton Federal Building the day the judge announced the decision on the death of Oscar Grant, shot in the back by a white BART police officer as he lay on the floor of BART's Fruitvale Station. His killer was given a light sentence. Burton Building security advised everyone in the building to leave before the public could react to the verdict. They expected riots, one colleague later told me.

For me, this warning was a flashback to the racial violence of Birmingham 1963. The tragic nature of the Grant case and the acclaimed motion picture "Fruitvale Station" ensures the Grant family — and others hurt by the violence — that the world knows of this barbaric racial episode in California.

The tragic death of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin in Sanford, Fla., raises more difficult questions about racial violence in our country and our commitment to civil rights and justice. For me, the Martin case is again Birmingham 1963, a time and place of lawlessness that resulted in the deaths of youthful innocents.

As our nation prepares to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr's "I Have a Dream" speech with egregious racial murders and continued racial violence in our country, I recall my late father's advice of 50 years ago and wonder: Will the sickness never end?

James Patterson is a contributing writer for The Bay Area Reporter.

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James Patterson

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