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Remembering Birmingham’s ‘Four Little Girls’

Sixteenth Street Baptist Church Bombing Victims Memorialized

By A. Scott Walton Executive Editor | 9/6/2013, 6 a.m.
Bomb damage to Sixteenth Street Baptist Church, September 15, 1963. Photo courtesy of BPL Archives.

By now, they might all be doting grandmothers, contented retirees and devoted members of their places of worship.

They might have had successful careers and served their communities to the fullest.

But the world will never know. Fifty years ago, a pack of ruthless racists fire-bombed Birmingham’s Sixteenth Street Baptist Church, snuffing out the lives of the “Four Little Girls” who became unwitting catalysts in the struggle for civil rights.

They are gone, but far from forgotten. Their martyrdom – on the morning of Sunday, September 15, 1963 – will be honored with a litany of events that will cap off Birmingham’s year-long remembrance known as “50 Years Forward”.

Addie Mae Collins (age 14), Denise McNair (age 11), Carole Robertson (age 14) and Cynthia Wesley (age 14) were dressing for Sunday school in the basement of Sixteenth Street Baptist when a bomb planted by white supremacists exploded; killing them and seriously injuring 22 others.

It took until 2002 – 39 years after the heinous act – for the last of four members of the Ku Klux Klan to be tried and convicted for the crime.

During a recent interview with the CBS News affiliate in Birmingham, the brother of Cynthia Wesley, Fate Morris, recalled the sense of shock he shared with the world on that ill-fated Sunday morning.

“(The bomb) was loud and it was powerful, powerful enough to shake the house I was living in. I lived about three blocks away,” he said.

After helping to clear away rubble from the explosion, saddened by the havoc he’d witnessed, Morris said he returned home only to receive even more heartbreaking news.

“(A) friend came by and said, ‘Man, why didn’t you stay? That girl they found with no head was your sister.’ But I didn’t stay, I’m sorry, I’m so sorry I left her.”

In May of this year, President Barack Obama signed into law a bill that will award the Congressional Gold Medal to the “Four Little Girls” posthumously. He called the signing, “a great privilege”. The award ceremony will take place Sept. 10 at Washington, D.C.’s Statuary Hall.

After watching Obama sign the proclamation, Dianne Braddock – the sister of Carole Robertson – said: “I think the congressional medal brings the country together and makes a statement about where we are as a nation.”

But the sister of victim Addie Mae Collins, Sarah Collins Rudolph (who lost an eye in the blast) insisted that she deserves millions in financial compensation for all her years of pain and suffering.

“I can’t spend a medal” she said.

Next Sunday, on the actual 50th anniversary of the Sixteenth Street Baptist bombing, churches throughout the nation are encouraged to teach the same “The Love That Forgives” Sunday School lesson that was in progress when the explosion occurred at 10:22 a.m.

The lesson came from the Book of Genesis (45: 4-15), which details how Joseph forgave his brothers after they sold him into slavery.

“If we are going to really be the community that we really need to be, and the nation that we need to be, forgiveness is required,” said an organizer of the Sunday School tribute Pastor Michael W. Wesley, Sr. of Birmingham’s Greater Shiloh Missionary Baptist Church.

On September 15, Sixteenth Street Baptist will teach the love and forgiveness Sunday School lesson at 9:30 a.m., and then conduct a wreath-laying and tolling of the church bell at 10:22 a.m. in memory of the “Four Little Girls”. The keynote address at 10:45 a.m. will be delivered by Dr. Julius Scruggs, President of the National Baptist Convention.

To learn more about Empowerment Week in Birmingham, visit: http://50yearsforward.com/events/. For Sixteenth Street Baptist Visitor Information, visit: www.16thstreetbaptist.org. To view the 1963 Sunday School lesson plan, visit: https://docs.google.com/file/d/0B-yE0T91aQWiSVBZLW1Zem9IbVk/edit?usp=sharing )