Pastor Eric Manning01.jpg (copy)

Pastor Eric Manning will preach at the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham on Sunday. More than 50 years ago, a bombing at the church ignited the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. File/Andrew J. Whitaker/Staff

Soon after he was appointed pastor of Emanuel AME Church, a congregation still grappling with the impact of the 2015 church shooting, the Rev. Eric Manning examined how another church dealt with a similar tragedy.

A book, written by a survivor of the 1963 16th Street Baptist Church bombing in Birmingham, gave Manning insight into how parishioners cope with traumatic events that occur within sacred walls.

More than 500 miles apart, Emanuel AME and 16th Street Baptist share stories of how black worshipers were targeted with acts of violence.

On Sunday, those stories will converge when Manning travels to the Birmingham church to share a message of reflection on the 56th anniversary of the bombing. 

It will be the pastor's first time standing in the place where four African American girls died and several others were injured when a bomb planted by Ku Klux Klan members exploded.

"It'll be sacred," Manning said. 

Manning reached out to the Rev. Arthur Price Jr., pastor of 16th Street, when the AME minister visited Birmingham last summer for a church conference, he said. While Manning never made it to the church, the two stayed in touch and Price invited him to preach for the church's 56th church bombing memorial worship service.

Measuring MLKs Dream

A monument of Martin Luther King Jr. faces the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Kelly Ingram Park in Birmingham, Ala. It was in this area, now known as the Civil Rights District, where the scenes of police brutality were captured in photos and TV footage that helped galvanize public opinion on behalf of demonstrators five decades ago. File/AP

Price extended the invitation because of the churches' shared histories. In Alabama, the black church was targeted by white supremacists because of its prominent role in the civil rights struggle. After the bombing, the movement strengthened and pushed harder for passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act.

In South Carolina, Emanuel AME was singled out because of its role in the liberation of blacks in America. After the 2015 shootings, some of the victims' families responded with forgiveness and a debate resurfaced about the Confederate flag, eventually leading to its removal from Statehouse grounds.

In response to hate, both congregations and their respective communities furthered the cause for equal rights and social justice.

"The anger was turned to advocacy," Price said.

Still, Manning expressed concern about the the need for lives to be taken in order to provoke change. And he pointed to the frequency of mass shootings in the nation, none of which seemed to have brought any sensible gun reform, he said.

Just earlier this year, Manning hugged and prayed with members of Tree of Life Synagogue, a congregation where an antisemitic gunman killed 11 worshipers in 2018.

"It's almost as if we haven't learned our lesson yet," Manning said.

He said society must continue to advocate for sensible gun control. 

U.S. House Majority Whip Jim Clyburn, a South Carolina Democrat, along with legislative and faith leaders, convened in Emanuel's sanctuary earlier this year to voice support for a bill to close the "Charleston loophole." The bill, which would extend the length of FBI background checks for gun purchases, passed the U.S. House, but stalled in the U.S. Senate.

Manning slammed "career politicians so concerned about their livelihood" that they refuse to deal with the racism and hatred that lead to these acts of violence.

"You pray that this never happens again," he said, referring the killings. "There's an eerie feeling it will."

The Charleston and Birmingham churches both must manage heightened attention and an influx of tourists.

Although the Baptist church's tragedy predates Emanuel's by more than five decades, members of the Birmingham congregation traveled to Charleston some years ago to learn how the AME church was managing its tour ministry.

Members learned about Emanuel's attentiveness to hospitality and security, Price, the Birmingham pastor, said.

Manning said he has dealt with the church's sudden popularity by being "protective of his sheep." He realizes that horrific memories still haunt some members. He doesn't allow tourists to take photos in the basement, where the shooting occurred. 

Sunday's celebration in Alabama will include the unveiling of an updated display of artifacts and mementos, as well as a video board that retells the church's history, Price said. Former Vice President Joe Biden, now a presidential candidate, is scheduled to attend.

At 10:22 a.m., the exact time of the bombing, a bell will toll to honor the four victims: Addie Mae Collins, 14, Denise McNair, 11, Carole Robertson, 14, and Cynthia Wesley, 14.

Follow Rickey Dennis on Twitter @RCDJunior.