Editor’s note: Some information used here was taken from a column published in 2009.
On Sept. 15, 1963, at 10:22 a.m., a bomb exploded at the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham. Four little girls died in the blast.
Not long ago, I wrote about the three civil rights workers who were murdered in Mississippi. In response, a reader said I was “old school,” and needed to move on. That will not happen. My generation is here to bear witness. If we cannot, what, in the end, do we have to contribute?
I pause today on the 50th anniversary of the tragedy to remember Denise McNair, Cynthia Wesley, Addie Mae Collins and Carole Robertson, who were in the ladies’ room in the church basement when the bomb went off. They were getting ready for the church’s annual Youth Day service.
Denise McNair, a beautiful child who would have been a beautiful woman, was 11 years old when she died. Her friends called her Niecie. She wanted to be a pediatrician when she grew up and held an annual fundraiser — skits, dance routines and poetry readings — to raise money to fight muscular dystrophy.
“I bet she would have been a real go-getter,” childhood friend Florita Jamison Askew later said.
Cynthia Wesley was the adopted daughter of two teachers. She was a petite girl, wearing size 2 clothes that her mother made. The morning of the bombing, as she was leaving the house, Cynthia’s mother told her to adjust her slip so she would be presentable in church.
“Cynthia was just full of fun all the time,” a friend said. “We were constantly laughing.”
Carole Robertson was an avid reader and made straight A’s in school. She took dance classes on Saturday at Smithfield Recreation Center. A former teacher described her as “full of life,” “anxious to succeed and do well.”
“I remember a statement she made — she wanted to teach history or do something historical,” Askew said. “I thought how ironic it was that she would remain a part of history forever.”
Addie Mae Collins was the seventh of eight children. Her father was a janitor, her mother a homemaker. Addie and two of her sisters sold their mother’s homemade aprons and pot holders door to door to raise money to help support the family. She liked to play hopscotch, sing in the church choir and wear bright colors. Her older sister, Janie, said, “Addie was a courageous person.”
Addie was tying Denise’s sash as the bomb went off, her sister, Sarah, said. Sarah survived the bombing but lost the sight in one eye.
It would be 14 years before a grinning idiot named Robert “Dynamite Bob” Chambliss would be brought to trial and convicted. He died in prison at the ripe old age of 81, still protesting his innocence.
After the church bombing, public outrage over the girls’ deaths lead to the passage of the Civil Rights Act.
On Tuesday, House and Senate leaders awarded the Congressional Gold Medal, Congress’ highest civilian honor, to Addie Mae, Cynthia, Carole and Denise.
To honor them, we must continue to work for justice, which, God help us, should never be though of as “old school.”
Jan Hearne is the Press Tempo editor. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.