In the early morning hours of September 15, 1963, fifty years ago today, four white supremacists planted a box of dynamite under the steps of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama. When the bomb exploded at 10:22 am, it killed four young parishioners, injuring nearly two dozen others.
Speaking at the funeral of three of the girls, Martin Luther King eulogized the four as martyrs to “a holy crusade for freedom and human dignity.” His words were prescient — the bombing galvanized American public opinion in support of the civil rights movement as no previous act of racist violence had, and helped to pave the way for the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 nine and a half months later.
The Birmingham church bombing is now remembered as a milestone in American history, and today, on the fiftieth anniversary of the attack, media and social media are filled with commemorations. But there are some elements of the story that are misremembered, and some that have been largely forgotten. We would do well to fill in the gaps.
When I ask my students and activists I know about the girls killed in Birmingham that day, they almost always describe them as six or eight years old. In public memory they are remembered as the “four little girls,” shown in pigtails and bows in photographs from when they were in first or second grade. But Addie Mae Collins, Carole Robertson, and Cynthia Wesley were all fourteen years old on the day they were killed, while Denise McNair was eleven. They were kids, but they weren’t the tykes of popular memory. Their lives were taken from them as they were on the verge of becoming young women.
And they weren’t the only black kids killed in Birmingham that day.
As news of the bombing spread the city erupted into riot. Black businesses and homes were burned, whites drove through black neighborhoods waving confederate flags. Crowds of black residents confronted police in standoffs that lasted for hours.
When the whites with their confederate flags appeared, shouting racial slurs and throwing soda bottles, some black youths fought back, throwing rocks at the cars. When police arrived at one such confrontation, the rock-throwers ran. Officer Jack Parker fired his shotgun, twice, from the back seat of his cruiser. Johnny Robinson, sixteen years old, was shot in the back as he ran. He was dead by the time he arrived at the hospital.
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.
Too often in America our narratives of race and history are constructed around a false oversimplification of the past.
In this telling, Rosa Parks becomes a saintly, vaguely elderly, seamstress whose feet were tired, rather than the seasoned 32-year-old civil rights activist who knew exactly what she was setting off when she refused to go to the back of the bus. Martin Luther King is remembered more for a few poetic snippets of the “I Have A Dream” speech than his decades of fierce and effective agitation. And four girls — innocent, yes, blameless, yes, but middle-schoolers, not kindergarteners — are transformed into symbols, denied their actual biographies. Meanwhile, angry, rock-throwing Johnny Robinson and Virgil Ware, a teenager senselessly shot down by another teenager, are erased entirely.
When we mythologize the civil rights movement, when we transform the raucous, unruly righteousness of the integrationist cause into a fantasy of passive, pastel-colored innocence, we deny ourselves the opportunity to learn how social change — and history — is truly made. And when we measure the complexity and uncertainty and messiness of the present against the sepia tones of that fictitious past, the present will always suffer by comparison.
Rosa Parks didn’t win because she was a saint. She won because she was an organizer. Martin Luther King didn’t change the world by giving feel-good speeches, he changed the world by doggedly mobilizing a fractious and complex and divided movement for social justice. Addie Mae Collins, Carole Robertson, Cynthia Wesley, Denise McNair, Johnny Robinson, and Virgil Ware weren’t adorable tykes, they were the kids we see on the subway every day, and too often recoil from. One of them was so angry at the violence and humiliation that had been inflicted on him and his community that he picked up a rock and was shot in the back by a police officer who never spent a day in jail.
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.