The History Behind the Ballad 
from Parting the Waters 

Taylor Branch 

The following account is from Parting the Waters, a book that won the Pulitzer Prize in history in 1989. 

That Sunday was the annual Youth Day at the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church. Mamie H. Grier, superintendent of the Sunday school, stopped in at the basement ladies’ room to find four young girls who had left Bible classes early and were talking excitedly about the beginning of the school year. All four were dressed in white from head to toe, as this was their day to run the main service for the adults at eleven o’clock. Grier urged them to hurry along and then went upstairs to sit in on her own women’s Sunday-school class. They were engaged in a lively debate on the lesson topic, “The Love That Forgives,” when a loud earthquake shook the entire church and showered the classroom with plaster and debris. Grier’s first thought was that it was like a ticker-tape parade. Maxine McNair, a schoolteacher sitting next to her, reflexively went stiff and was the only one to speak. “Oh, my goodness!” she said. She escaped with Grier, but the stairs down to the basement were blocked and the large stone staircase on the outside literally had vanished. They stumbled through the church to the front door and then made their way around outside through the gathering noise of moans and sirens. A hysterical church member shouted to Grier that her husband had already gone to the hospital in the first ambulance. McNair searched desperately for her only child until finally she came upon a sobbing old man and screamed, “Daddy, I can’t find Denise!” The man helplessly replied, “She’s dead, baby. I’ve got one of her shoes.” He held a girl’s white dress shoe, and the look on his daughter’s face made him scream out, “I’d like to blow the whole town up!” 

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