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A mother’s example helped a boy process and learn from a horrific year of murder and violence. The lessons she taught him, that faith in God changes hearts and love beats hatred, are worth sharing.

The boy was 12 when he was spit on by the infamous Bull Connor, Birmingham’s commissioner of public safety, and thrown in jail for five days for marching with other children who wanted to end segregation in Alabama schools in May 1963.

Something worse awaited that September — just weeks after that boy, Freeman Hrabowski III, turned 13. One Friday, he said goodbye to his friend Cynthia at school. On Sunday at church, he felt the vibrations of the bomb that killed Cynthia and three other little girls at nearby 16th Street Baptist Church.

Like the mothers of the Sons of Helaman, his mother laid the foundation of the first lesson long before the tragedy, one that was confirmed when he attended their funeral. A second lesson would take a decade to settle on him. He shared both with nearly 3,000 BYU students at Tuesday’s campus forum assembly.

Hrabowski said that as a 13-year-old, he saw something at the funeral for three of the girls that he’d never imagined before. It happened while the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was speaking.

“Life is hard, at times as hard as crucible steel,” King said. “If one will hold on, he will discover that God walks with him, and that God is able to lift you from the fatigue of despair to the buoyancy of hope, and transform dark and desolate valleys into sunlit paths of inner peace.”

Hrabowski said he looked around and couldn’t believe his eyes.

“For the first time in my church, there were whites, white men of every faith there, and I was so struck,” he said. “It was so unusual. I looked and I kept looking at their faces, and I saw tears on the faces of white men crying for little Black girls.

“It was so moving, because the world didn’t tell you that people like yourself can just be human beings, and I had not fully understood what my mother always said, that you never judge somebody by the color of their skin. You get to know the content of the character, as Dr. King would say.

“It showed me that what she said was true.”

Connor, the racist leader who used attack dogs and water hoses to terrorize the children who marched for desegregation in May 1963 and who spat on and arrested Hrabowski, died in March 1973.

Hrabowski resented Connor’s treatment of him, so when his mother cried as she called to tell him about Connor’s death after a stroke, he was angry.

“I said, ‘Mom, why would you cry for this man? He was so mean to me.’”

She reminded him that faith must be lived. She reminded him of a truth later emphasized by the chairman of BYU’s board of education, President Russell M. Nelson of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, that all people are children of God and equal in his eyes.

“We have tried to teach you all your life to put God first, that you are loved,” she said. “This man lived his life hating because he never had someone to teach him when he was a child to love people as human beings. He was taught to hate, and he never got beyond that hate and we must pray for him and his soul.”

Hrabowski said he started to cry, too, which also upset him.

“Mom,” he told her, “why would you mess me up like this? I wanted to hate this man.”

The lesson, he told the BYU audience, was that “hatred eats you up on the inside. You can hate what somebody does, but the idea of loving and knowing that we are children of God, that faith is more important than any other.”

His parents, he said, were examples of how to live with faith and how to love in a chaotic world. He told BYU students that as they complete their educations and move on to serve after graduation, they will be leading others: “You’ll go around the world, spreading the truth. You’ll talk about your faith. You’ll talk about believing in young people.”

“You can never not lead,” he added.

Like his mother and his father, he said, “You will be examples of how we should live our lives.”

You can watch Hrabowski’s forum address at this BYUtv.org link.

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Freeman Hrabowski III, left, poses with Elder Clark G. Gilbert and BYU President Shane Reese after in February 2024.
Freeman Hrabowski III, left, poses with Elder Clark G. Gilbert, the church commissioner of education, and BYU President Shane Reese after Hrabowski delivered a campus forum address at the Marriott Center in Provo, Utah, on Tuesday, Feb. 27, 2024. | Tad Walch