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Four little Black girls dressed in white

Herb Boyd | 9/12/2013, 4:24 p.m.
Much attention was given recently to the commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington featuring the immortal ...
Birmingham's 4 little girls

Much attention was given recently to the commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington featuring the immortal “I Have a Dream” speech by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

While King’s words deserve all the praise we can muster, there were other events that occurred 50 years ago that should not be ignored, including the assassination of Medgar Evers Jr., the civil rights leader in Mississippi; the assassination of President John F. Kennedy; and the death of W.E.B. Du Bois, the eminent scholar and human rights activist, who died in Ghana at 95.

But one of the most unforgettably heinous murders in the nation’s history happened on Sept. 15, 1963, a little over two weeks after the March on Washington. Four little girls—Addie Mae Collins, Denise McNair, Cynthia Wesley and Carole Robertson—were killed in an explosion at the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Ala. The explosives were placed and discharged by members of the Ku Klux Klan to offset the momentum and enthusiasm the nation, particularly Black Americans, had experienced during the march.

The four little Black girls dressed in white were too young to be active members of the Civil Rights Movement, and they were not necessarily the targets of the segregationists. They just happened to be in the basement of the church that was often the meeting place for movement activists when they didn’t use a motel across the street.

Nevertheless, they are considered martyrs of the movement, and they are among the countless innocent people who the Klan gave little regard to in their cowardly action to stop Black people from registering to vote and exercising their rights as citizens.

It was a Sunday morning, and Denise McNair, 11, got up with the usual excitement about going to church. Her white dress was neatly pressed, and her thick, shoulder-length hair was combed and brushed. A collection of her dolls stared at her from across the room. On the dresser were two containers full of money she had raised to fight muscular dystrophy. She was proud of her work and couldn’t wait to tell her friends and playmates how well she had done. In a couple of months, on Nov. 17, she would be 12 years old. She was the first child of Chris and Maxine McNair. Her playmates and classmates at Center Elementary School called her “Niecie.”

Denise’s close friend Carole Robertson, 14, was a bookworm. When she wasn’t reading, she was helping out around the house or practicing scales on her clarinet. On this Sunday morning before going to church, she was spinning around the room, dancing a fancy heel-and-toe and a cha-cha shuffle. She was a good dancer and very nimble on her feet. She also liked to model and try different hairstyles. Like McNair, she was excited about their role in Sunday’s youth affair and really looked forward to showing off her pretty new white dress. Other than her Girl Scout uniform, it was her favorite dress.

Addie Mae Collins, 14, rarely ever missed a Sunday at church, and this one was so special that she stayed up later than usual starching and pressing her dress. Getting ready for church was something she enjoyed, almost as much as selling the aprons and potholders her mother made. One of eight children, she often acted as a peacemaker, diplomatically solving problems between her brothers and sisters. Among her favorite games was hopscotch and softball, but these activities were not on her mind as she sat while her sister, Flora, pressed and curled her hair.