On September 15, 1963, a bomb exploded at 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Ala., killing four little girls: Addie Mae Collins, Denise McNair, Carol Robertson and Cynthia Wesley.
The evil act of terrorism in the name of “segregation forever” would be one of the most horrific tragedies of the civil rights movement. But just hours after the bombing at 16th Street, two other black youth also lost their lives that day.
The names Virgil Ware and Johnny Robinson may not be familiar to many, but they played an important role nonetheless in the fight for freedom and the struggle for civil rights.
“Even though the girls’ situation received more media attention, these young men became victims of the time,” says Hezekiah Johnson IV, president of the Metro Birmingham NAACP. “They became sacrifices. They were martyrs for the cause.”
Thirteen-year-old Virgil Ware was riding on the handlebars of his brother James’ bicycle when he was fatally shot by White teens — Eagle Scouts — who had just come from a segregationist rally. As the story goes, Larry Sims was holding Michael Farley’s gun when they saw the Ware brothers. They decided to “scare” the boys and Sims fired two shots. Ware was hit in the chest and cheek. The young teen, who had just picked up a newspaper route, died in his brother’s arms.
Sims and Farley, both 16 at the time of the murder, were convicted of second-degree manslaughter. They were sentenced to seven months in jail, but a judge ultimately suspended their sentences giving them only two years’ probation for Ware’s death.
Johnny Robinson also died that day. Outraged about the bombing, Robinson, 16, and other black youth were participating in a demonstration when they were confronted by white teens driving by and hurling racial slurs. According to reports, the black youth threw rocks at the car which was draped in a confederate flag. When the police pulled up, the crowd scattered. As Robinson ran, he was shot in the back by police officer Jack Parker.
Two grand juries refused to bring Parker to trial and no one was ever prosecuted for Robinson’s death. His story went largely unnoticed for years until the FBI opened a slew of cold cases in 2009.
Today, 50 years after their deaths, Ware and Robinson’s stories are finally being told alongside that of the four little girls.
“They were never recognized because the bombing was so horrific it tore the world up, not only the state of Alabama or the city of Birmingham but this resonated around the nation and abroad,” says Shirley Gavin Floyd, chairman of the Civil Rights Foot Soldiers in Birmingham.
The Foot Soldiers’ founder, Tommy Wrenn, who is now deceased, worked to get a proper burial site for Ware’s remains and also restore Robinson’s tombstone. As an associate of Martin Luther King Jr. in the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, the civil rights activist also made sure the boys’ stories was in the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute as part of the history of September 15, 1963.
“Tommy Wrenn always said the history was incorrect. He kept saying there were six children who died that day,” says Floyd. “He was so discontent that the little boys were left out.”
Although Roderick Royal, president of the Birmingham City Council, didn’t learn of Ware and Robinson’s death until he became an adult, he is making sure that Birmingham recognizes its martyred sons. He submitted their names to be inducted in the city’s Gallery of Distinguished Citizens and in August the two teens were honored with a bronze bust in Birmingham’s City Hall. Ware’s father, James Ware Sr., died on Sept.5 at the age of 90 just a few weeks after attending the ceremony.
“For me, since we were celebrating the 50th, it was a matter of finally making the story complete,” says Royal, who teaches African-American history at Miles College and the University of Alabama at Birmingham. “History is only complete when the whole story is told.”