Most often, when we think about the civil rights movement, we remember it through rose-colored glasses.
When we look back the movement it seems inevitable, perhaps even quick, or easy. We feel that racial animus was indefensible; after all, the moral weight of their cause was so great, who would still argue that segregation and second class citizenship was just?
We often white-wash the memory of the movement, playing the end of the “I Have a Dream” speech, letting our collective consciousness linger in the shadow of the Lincoln Memorial that day in August of 1963, and all while we refuse to remember the terror that ruled broad swaths of the American landscape for generations.
But the anniversary of the brutal murder of four girls at the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama on the morning of September 15, forces us to remember that the civil rights movement wasn’t easy or inevitable. There was no guarantee that change would come, or that the outcomes of each action would bear fruit. And we must remember those who paid the highest price.
Birmingham, Alabama was the hub of the struggle for civil rights in the spring and summer of 1963. That year, Reverend Fred Shuttlesworth, one of the founders of the Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights, and a member of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) invited King and the SCLC to organize in Birmingham. From the beginning it was a difficult fight.
Labor and civil rights activists had been contesting racial inequalities in the industrial city for decades, and the response of white supremacists had been brutal.
Birmingham, home to a major mining industry where dynamite was plentiful, became known as “Bombingham” in the wake of a series of unsolved bombings beginning in the 1940s. White supremacists targeted black churches and the homes of black activists pressing for their civil rights.
The local Klan had targeted Shuttlesworth for assassination several times; one explosion threw him into the basement of his home on Christmas day in 1956. Despite the danger, Shuttlesworth remained undeterred.
King and the SCLC answered Shuttlesworth’s call and chose Birmingham in part because of how awful circumstances were for African Americans in the city and how long movement activists had been struggling for justice. And what King called a “breakthrough in Birmingham” did begin to take shape.
During a stay in the city jail for violating a court order not to protest, King wrote “A Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” a formidable argument for the urgency and morality of the civil rights movement. And when large numbers of African American adults were reluctant to face the physical and economic reprisals that threatened those that marched, Birmingham’s young people startled the world with their brave stand against Public Safety Commissioner Bull Connor’s high-powered hoses and dogs.
So it would be the children of Birmingham who would bear the weight of this victory and reveal the sickening violence that undergirded the system of racial segregation. In retaliation for the success of the Birmingham children’s marches, Klan bombers placed an explosive device in the basement of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church, a church that had served as a meeting place for the movement. The device was timed to explode during Sunday school, killing four girls and injuring twenty-two others.
The murders of eleven year old Denise McNair, and Carole Robertson, Cynthia Wesley, and Adie Mae Collins who were all just fourteen, was a heavy weight to bear. Their deaths helped to demonstrate to a nation that may not have understood, the ways that racial animus had twisted the hearts of so many in the segregated South, but what a heavy price to pay.
For more than a decade, none of the murders faced justice. The Federal Bureau of Investigation had agents collecting evidence on the Klan in Birmingham; FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover had refused to use that information to prosecute. Alabama Attorney General Bill Baxley reopened the case using the once concealed information and prosecuted bomber Robert Chambliss for murder in 1977. Two more men, Thomas Blanton and Bobby Cherry, were tried and convicted using FBI evidence in 2000.
In the Letter from the Birmingham Jail, King had foreshadowed the burden that those protesting would have to carry. He compared racial injustice to “a boil that can never be cured so long as it is covered up but must be opened with all its ugliness to the natural medicines of air and light” insisting that it “must be exposed, with all the tension its exposure creates, to the light of human conscience and the air of national opinion before it can be cured.”
These four deaths helped to expose the ugliness of white supremacy to the whole world, leading many to question how such injustice could be allowed to stand in a nation founded on democratic principles. As we celebrate the victories of fifty years ago, we should not forget these girls who never had the chance to grow up, the families that had to bury their children, and the community ripped apart by violence for simply asking for equality. All sides of this history must to be remembered, for if we fail to remember the cost, we won’t fully value the victory.
Near the closing of his letter, King wrote that he hoped that “one day the South will recognize its real heroes.” It’s good for us all to remember four of those heroes today.
Blair L. M. Kelley is an associate professor at North Carolina State University. Follow her on Twitter at@ProfBLMKelley