In the month of September, America commemorated two tragic events in its history.
Twelve years ago, on Sept. 11, four coordinated terrorist attacks were launched by al-Qaida in New York City and Washington, D.C., resulting in the death of nearly 3,000 people.
Fifty years ago, on Sept. 15, four girls were killed when a bomb exploded at the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Ala., before Sunday worship service.
Two terrorist attacks, separated by 38 years, yet one is remembered annually while the other was mentioned widely during its golden anniversary, but less so otherwise.
Like the World Trade Center, the 16th Street Baptist Church represents "ground zero." They are both intertwined by barbarity and evil. So why are they treated differently in the annals of history?
If terrorism is understood as the use of violent acts to frighten the people as a way of trying to achieve a political goal, don't these two events bear similarity?
I suspect there are myriad reasons for the discrepancy. The Sept. 11 attack left nearly 3,000 dead, while 16th Street Baptist bombing killed only four, six if one includes the two boys killed later that day.
Moreover, the Sept. 11 attacks occurred in the age of television. We saw the carnage; we actually witnessed the second plane crash into one of the towers of the World Trade Center. The 16th Street Baptist Church bombing occurred as television was in the fledgling stages of becoming the dominant medium by which America received its information.
There remains another possibility; perhaps we don't view the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing as terrorism. Maybe it has been compartmentalized in the nation's psyche as something conducted by racist extremists who were outside the mainstream, but it did not reach the level of terrorism.
To do so might force America to confront the uncomfortable reality that terrorism has been part of the nation's narrative far longer than most would care to admit.
To view the bombing at the 16th Street Baptist Church as terrorism would necessitate that one also include the 10-year span between 1950-60 where there were roughly 18 unsolved bombings of black homes and establishments in Birmingham that earned the Magic City the pseudonym "Bombingham."
I raise this not so that one can engage in the sophomoric process of comparing tragedy. But the failure to view the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing in the same terrorist light as Sept. 11 is to ultimately conduct a systematic disservice.
There remain historical events that, because they are primarily focused on people of color, have been given an adjunct distinction in American history.
Westward expansion is as inextricably linked to the Trail of Tears as U.S. involvement in World War II is to Japanese internment. This is one of America's unfortunate characteristics -- the inability to acknowledge it's high and low moments with equal valor.
Understanding history, the good, the bad and the ugly, is not some form of weakness, but rather a testimony to a nation's strength. History is the ongoing saga of who we are, how we came to be, while offering some input as to where we go from here.
It's important that we don't delineate or compartmentalize history; it is also crucial that we don't embrace a narrative that is in essence a sugary fabrication.
Why can't it be universally accepted that the Ku Klux Klan was just as involved, if not more so, in terrorism as al-Qaida? Why is it so difficult to embrace the high and low moments of American history equally?
By failing to embrace the similarities of Sept. 11, 2001, and Sept. 15, 1963, we do our posterity as well as ourselves an injustice.
Contact Byron Williams at 510-208-6417 or byron@ byronspeaks.com.