Today is the 49th anniversary of the 1963 Birmingham church bombing, in which four black girls were killed by white supremacists who planted dynamite at the steps of their church.
The bombing is one of the best known incidents in the history of the American civil rights movement. There are a few things about it, however, that most folks don’t know, but should.
First, the girls who were killed that day weren’t small children. They were adolescents — three were fourteen years old, and the fourth, Denise McNair, was eleven. They were kids, but they weren’t the little kids of popular memory. Their lives were taken from them as they were on the verge of becoming young women.
Second, they weren’t the only black people killed in Birmingham that day. As tempers flared throughout the city a white police officer shot and killed 16-year-old Johnny Robinson. Robinson, who was shot in the back, had earlier thrown rocks at a car draped with a Confederate flag. Later that day, Virgil Ware, thirteen, was riding on the handlebars of his brother’s bike when he was shot by Larry Joe Sims, a white sixteen-year-old returning from an anti-integration rally.
The teen who killed Virgil Ware was convicted of second-degree manslaughter and sentenced to two years probation. The officer who killed Johnny Robinson was never charged with a crime.
There is a mythology to our collective memory of the civil rights movement, a mythology in which the righteousness of the integrationist cause is sometimes misrepresented as innocence. Teenagers become — as in the title of Spike Lee’s magnificent documentary on the church bombing — “little girls.” A teenager driven by anger to throw rocks at racists disappears entirely.
We should remember Addie Mae Collins, Denise McNair, Carole Robertson, and Cynthia Wesley — and Johnny Robinson and Virgil Ware, too. And we should do them the honor of remembering them as they were.