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Baptists seek ways to back up 1995 apology for bias
Painful memories may be stirred on civil rights tour

Southern Baptists met in Atlanta four years ago and made headlines by apologizing for their denomination's sins of racism -- past and present.

Some critics maintained that the apology was just words. But officials of the nation's largest Protestant group are searching for ways to prove the statement was more than grandstanding.That's why Baptists, meeting again in Atlanta on June 15-16, will be taking a special bus tour of historic civil rights sites on the day after the convention ends.

Painful memories no doubt will be stirred on the one-day tour.

In Birmingham, the Baptists will place a memorial wreath at the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church, where four young girls who had just attended Sunday school were killed by a bomb in 1963.

Outrage over the bombings ignited feelings among many who were apathetic toward the civil rights movement, the Rev. Christopher Hamlin, the current pastor of the Sixteenth Street church, said this week.

"It was a pivotal point for social change," said Hamlin, who was 3 when the church was bombed. "All of the bombings and loss of life up to that time had not involved children."

About 100,000 people visit the Birmingham church each year. They walk through a lower auditorium that has a "memorial nook" showing pictures of the girls and other memorabilia. They see a film called "Angels of Change."

Hamlin believes the Baptist apology for racism was a good beginning to try to reconcile differences. But much work lies ahead.

"What Dr. King said about 11 o'clock on Sunday being the most segregated time in America is still true," Hamlin said.

Baptists will begin the civil rights tour in Atlanta by placing a wreath on the grave of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. They'll also visit his boyhood home and the Ebenezer Baptist Church where he preached.

Buses then will depart for Montgomery, Ala., to tour the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church. The civil rights movement of the 1960s got started when King was the young pastor of that church. He took up the cause of Rosa Parks, a gentle woman who adamantly refused to sit in the back of city buses.

Richard Land of Nashville, president of the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, which is sponsoring the tour, said no one should forget the men and women "who so courageously stood for justice and equality under the law for all Americans."

Land would be the first to admit that Baptists have a long way to go in fulfilling the statements in their much-publicized apology of 1995.

But the denomination, founded in 1845 in a dispute with northern Baptists over slavery, now has a Racial Reconciliation Task Force, an ongoing body trying to make changes toward racial inclusiveness.

The Rev. Joseph Lyles of Fort Washington, Md., president of the Southern Baptist African American Fellowship, says the 3,000 predominantly black churches in the denomination are getting strong support from church leaders.

"The apology represented a sincere move toward greater inclusiveness," he said in an earlier interview.

Lyles had no statistics, but he said more blacks are being hired to fill key staff positions among Baptists. He noted that a black, Franklin "Jerry" Burkett, is vice president in charge of computer technology for the North American Mission Board in Alpharetta, Ga.

The Rev. Meredith Turner, associate pastor of the Christian Fellowship Baptist Church, a predominantly black Southern Baptist Church in College Park, a suburb of Atlanta, praised Baptists for their racial justice goals. He and the church's senior pastor, the Rev. Emmanuel McCall, will join Land in leading the civil rights tour.

"The Southern Baptist apology for racism was just a step," said Turner. But it was an important one, he said, comparing it with the steps taken in the 12-step program of Alcoholics Anonymous. "The first step is to admit there is problem."