Roy S. Johnson: ‘I had to be here,’ Spike Lee says at 16th St bombing remembrance

Rev. Arthur Price Jr, left, Spike Lee, center, and Congresswoman Terri Sewell, right, attend the 60th Commemoration of the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing Friday, Sept. 15, 2023, in Birmingham, Ala. (AP Pool Photo/Butch Dill) AP

By Roy S. Johnson

This is an opinion column.

“I had to be there.”

Of course, he did. Spike Lee had to be there—courtside, or pulpit-side, of course—at the 16th Street Baptist Church for the historic 60th-year commemoration of the murder of four young Black girls by the Ku Klux Klan and two Black boys in the hateful aftermath.

Had to be there to remember Denise McNair, Cynthia Wesley, Addie Mae Collins, Carole Robertson, Johnny Robinson, and Virgil Ware.

Donning white glasses specks and a fashionable blue suit, the Academy Award-winning film director, sitting between Birmingham mayor Randall Woodfin and Lisa McNair, often leaned forward from his seat during the rousing two-hour service as if a member of his beloved New York Knicks was on the free-throw line for a shot to win the NBA title.

“Not to disrespect anybody,” he said later outside the church, “but I’d have missed game 6 of the NBA Finals if the Knicks were in it to be here.”

Had to be here.

Lee directed “4 Little Girls,” the 1997 documentary on the event that rocked the nation six decades ago and fast-tracked the signing of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

On Friday, on the day the church’s bell tolls at 10:22 a.m., the moment the dynamite planted beneath the church’s outdoor steps exploded, the name atop the marquee was U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson, the first Black female justice on the nation’s highest court.

She had to be there, too.

Spike Lee at 60th 16th St bombing rememberence
The “4 Little Girls” director honored families of the victims at the 60th commemoration of the tragic bombing.

“I had to come,” she remarked, noting it was her first visit to Alabama—though her parents were proud graduates of Tuskegee University.

Brown said she came to “commemorate, celebrate, and warn.”

She noted 1 Corinthians 15:10: But by the grace of God, I am what I am…

She commemorated the lives lost and lamented the life strides the youths could have made—strides comparable to her own as an admitted beneficiary of the civil rights movement and those who battled both before and beyond September 15, 1963, when the dynamite exploded.

She celebrated the “strides” made since—such as the 59 Black women who now serve as federal judges in the U.S. Yet still, she emphasized, “there is still more to do.”

Her warning? “Reject complacency and ignorance,” she said. “Pay careful attention to what we know. Oppressors have long recognized that knowledge is a powerful tool, which emboldens our need for the truth the whole truth about our past…. We cannot learn from mistakes we did not know existed.”

“We cannot allow discomfort,” she implored, “to replace knowledge, the truth about our history.

“History is our best teacher. Uncomfortable lessons teach us the most about ourselves…

“We have to own even the darkest parts of our past, understand them, and vow never to repeat them.”

When I first met Spike Lee, I had better Knicks season tickets than he did. That’s a few years back, clearly. Mine were in the 200s at Madison Square Garden; his were in the 300s. He was riding the success of the 1986 film” She’s Gotta Have It,” his first breakout hit.

“Money,” he yelled at me from the cheap(er) seats one evening a few hours before tip-off as I walked around the arena. “Help me get down there.” He pointed towards the court. I looked up.

“Who me?!”

I was a reporter covering the Knicks but had no such juice.

Long story short, well, most of you’ve likely not seen Lee sitting anywhere but courtside.

After the service, he repeatedly gave honor to the families of the victims, many of whom he’d interviewed for his documentary. “Many of them are not alive anymore,” he said.

During our brief chat, he also acknowledged the late Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth, a vital architect of the movement who often gets “lost in the sauce,” Lee said.

He revealed the main characters in his 1998 film “He’s Got Game” were named as homage to the fiery Birmingham preacher. “The Shuttlesworths [played by Denzel Washington and Ray Allen], that was in honor of Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth.

“A lot of times people who are like vital, they get lost in history,” he said. “No disrespect to anybody. I remember, besides the four beautiful little girls who lost their lives and their families, I remember Fred Shuttlesworth…courageous.”