Remembering Birmingham's Four Little Girls

Families Receive Congressional Medal on 50th Anniversary of Bombing

Stacy M. Brown | 9/11/2013, 2:31 p.m.
Less than one month after the original March on Washington in 1963, where African Americans and others celebrated landmark gains ...

Less than one month after the original March on Washington in 1963, where African Americans and others celebrated landmark gains in the civil rights movement, a notorious hate group proved determined to prevent progress by viciously reminding the world of the high price of freedom.

Fifty years ago, on Sept. 15, 1963, about 742 miles south of Washington, D.C., Addie Mae Collins, Denise McNair, Carole Robertson, all 14 years old, and Cynthia Wesley, 11, died in a senseless bombing at the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Ala.

"Obviously, it was such a devastating day and time in so many people's lives," said Lisa McNair, the sister of Denise McNair.

The bombing shook the nation in the aftermath of the famous march in which Martin Luther King delivered his electrifying, "I Have a Dream," speech on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C., on Aug. 28, 1963.

Three weeks later, and past midnight on Sept. 15, four members of the Ku Klux Klan planted 11 sticks of dynamite, wrapped in paper in the basement stairwell of the church, founded by freed slaves in 1873.

The bomb detonated at 10:22 a.m.

The Klan had become outraged over the integration of some Alabama public schools and the White Supremacist group began detonating bombs throughout Birmingham.

Months earlier, they bombed the home of a black minister, The Rev. A.D. King, who with his family managed to escape unharmed. The group reportedly claimed responsibility for the bombs that exploded at a motel where King held a meeting and at the home of Arthur Shores, one of the first black lawyers to practice in Alabama.

The church bombing grabbed the attention of the federal government and many others as images of the four young girls' bodies being carried from the rubble sent shock waves throughout America as veteran CBS anchor Walter Cronkite delivered the devastating news to viewers nationwide.

"I didn't recognize the girls because they were so burned and disfigured," John Cross, the church's pastor in 1963, told ABC News prior to his death in 2007. "They were all on top of each other, as if they had hugged each other."

One year after the bombing, Congress passed the Civil Rights Act, which outlawed racial discrimination and hate crimes against ethnic groups, religions, minorities and women. The law also ended racial segregation in public schools and the workplace.

Earlier this year, the U.S. House and Senate voted to posthumously grant one of the nation's highest civilian honors to the girls, the Congressional Gold Medal.

Numerous events are planned in Birmingham and in the District to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the bombing on Sunday, Sept. 15, including a special ceremony at the 16th Street Baptist Church.

Project1Voice, which focuses on the challenges facing blacks in theater, Howard University, the Duke Ellington School of the Arts, and the African Continuum Theatre Company, plan to present a staged reading of the play, "Four Little Girls," at 6 p.m. Sunday, in the Hall of States at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Northwest.