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Four little Black girls dressed in white

Herb Boyd | 9/12/2013, 4:24 p.m.
Birmingham's 4 little girls

With a narrow face that seemed to be always etched with a smile, Cynthia Wesley, 14, was an excellent student. She was also a member of the school’s band. Her popularity was known throughout the neighborhood where she lived, and she was sure to be among those honored at the upcoming Youth Day at the church.

Sunday school had just let out at the church, the festivities were almost over, and some 20 girls gathered in the basement of the church, laughing and talking about the Youth Day celebration and planning for the afternoon.

Nineteen sticks of dynamite placed underneath a stairwell exploded and destroyed the northeast corner of the church. McNair was the first of the girls pulled from the ruins. Then, in tragic succession, came the bodies of Wesley, Robertson and Collins. When the reports of the bombing hit the press, it sent shock waves across the world. The explosion left more than 20 injured, including Collins’ sister, Sarah. Alerted to the incident, King and other civil rights activists hurried to a city that was named “Bombingham” because of the number of explosions that often rocked the city.

It was one of the saddest moments in civil rights history, but rather than stifling the movement, activists became even more determined to bring about change, to make sure the deaths of the four little girls were not in vain.

“They are the martyred heroines of a holy crusade for freedom and human dignity,” King said of the girls at funeral services for three of them. Robertson’s funeral had occurred a day before.

Not until 2001 was some form of justice delivered for the murders. Nine white and three Black jurors convicted the last of the three men involved in the incident. In the wake of the trial, the church was rebuilt and now stands as a shrine for thousands of visitors to the church.

Activities

  • Find out more: There is so much more to know about the four little girls, and there are a number of books that have discussed who they were, their hopes and dreams, and what they meant to their families. Among the best documentaries is one by Spike Lee. You can find portions of the film online or ask your teacher to request it for viewing in the classroom.
  • Discussion:The murder of these four little girls was a very disturbing incident, but that shouldn’t keep us from discussing what happened and the impact it had on the Civil Rights Movement. Yes, it was a temporary setback, but in many ways, the movement was strengthened, and it was certainly alerted to how far the Klan and other terrorists would go to stop the struggle for civil and human rights.
  • Place in context: It is important to place this terrible crime in the political and historical context in order to understand why the four little girls were killed. Students should take time and study what else was going on then and what happened shortly thereafter. For example, who were some of the others who sacrificed their lives to make this a better world? What events occurred at the church following the incident?

This Week in Black History

  • Sept. 11, 1959: Edward Kennedy “Duke” Ellington, the great jazz musician and composer, is the recipient of the prestigious Spingarn Medal from the NAACP for his musical accomplishments.
  • Sept. 12, 1992: Dr. Mae C. Jemison is the first African-American woman to travel in space.
  • Sept. 13, 1886: Renowned literary critic and editor Alain Locke, chosen as the first African-
  • American Rhodes Scholar, is born on this day.