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.
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.
- 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.