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Events

Come to Washington D.C.

Come to
Washington, D.C.
August 24th &
August 28th, 2013
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Four Girls Jubilee, September 15, 2013

Four Girls Jubilee
Call to Action
September 15, 2013
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FOUR GIRLS JUBILEE
CALL TO ACTION
SEPTEMBER 15, 2013

Four precious girls, Addie Mae Collins, 14, Denise McNair, 11, Carole Robertson, 14, and Cynthia Wesley, 14, were murdered by the Klan’s terrorist bombing of their Birmingham Baptist church on Sunday morning, September 15, 1963. Birmingham Sunday marked a vital turning point like none other in the fortunes of the Civil Rights Movement.

In the Judeo-Christian tradition, a (golden) jubilee is the time fifty years after a monumental injustice when new generations are encouraged to achieve redemption, reconciliation, and repair (especially debt forgiveness)—in the name of all those who sacrificed their lives.

Half a century after the horror of Birmingham Sunday, we have the opportunity to commemorate these four lost lives and to commit ourselves to the aims of racial and economic justice for which they died. (Although racial and economic justice have always been entwined, they can no longer be meaningfully separated, nor can they be divorced from environmental justice, nor from peace.)

We call on all Americans, of all ages, colors, and creeds, to craft an hour-long program  to honor the four girls, on or around Sunday, Sept. 15, 2013, that looks toward how the pressing goals of racial, economic, and environmental justice can be attained during the next half century, if not well before.

We encourage each college campus and house of worship (and high school) to organize their own forward-looking commemoration. Such a program might consist of any of the following, or  others more locally significant:

  • Facilitated dialogues on racial, economic, and/or environmental justice, culminating in action plans
  • Specific dialogues and action plans on current issues such as: mass incarceration of African Americans and Latinos (“new Jim Crow”); global slavery (sex & labor); sweatshop labor; violence again women and girls; age discrimination; joblessness & retirement; family debt burdens
  • Film showings (e.g., Spike Lee’s Four Little Girls) followed by dialogue
  • Dramatic readings and performances (e.g., poetry slams), with dialogue
  • Campus or church gospel choir performances on Sunday, Sept. 15

We will offer an online dialogue and action guide that participants can use if they wish. Go to StewartBurnsHistory.com

Let’s make the weekend of Sept. 15 a moment of hope, vision, and commitment—a time to make history in the here and now.

IF YOU MIGHT BE INTERESTED IN TAKING PART IN, OR HELPING TO ORGANIZE, A COMMEMORATION OF THE FOUR GIRLS AROUND SEPT. 15, PLEASE CONTACT STEWART BURNS, [email protected] In August this web page will begin listing Four Girls Jubilee commemorative events all over, linking to all those with websites, serving as a clearinghouse and communication link for the Four Girls Jubilee Project. Please stay tuned for updates during the summer.

***

Four Girls Who Died for Freedom in Birmingham, September 15, 1963:
Addie Mae Collins, Denise McNair, Carole Robertson, Cynthia Wesley

A week after the glorious March on Washington, Birmingham fell into darkness again. In fits and starts the new mayor, Albert Boutwell, and the biracial citizens committee had moved over the summer to implement the flawed desegregation agreement of May “with all deliberate speed.” Though the city councilors abrogated most segregation laws, the merchants dragged their heels and the industrialists, nicknamed the “Big Mules,” stood still. Sitting together at lunch counters was bad enough, but the real threat of “mongrelization” was about to come true—the commingling of black and white kids at school, where they could make friends. In July the federal appeals court ordered the Birmingham school district to begin desegregation in September.

Spurred by the Birmingham Klan, who twice bombed black lawyer Arthur Shores’ home (injuring his wife), whites rioted when a federal judge ordered the admission of five black children to three white schools. Governor Wallace sent the Alabama National Guard to block it. President Kennedy again federalized the guard in order to pull them out. The kids enrolled in the schools despite the incensed mobs.

On Saturday morning, September 14, “Dynamite Bob” Chambliss told his wife and niece that he had found the address of “the nigger girl that was going to integrate the school.” His niece warned him to be careful. (She had seen the stack of dynamite in his house.) He boasted that he had enough “stuff put away to flatten half of Birmingham.”

“What good do you think any of that would do?” his niece asked. He looked her straight in the eye.

“You just wait till after Sunday morning. They will beg us to let them segregate.”

Late that night Chambliss and three Klan colleagues stashed a powerful dynamite bomb in bushes outside Sixteenth Street Baptist Church. The church had been drawn reluctantly into the spring crusade by its new young pastor, John Cross, becoming the headquarters for the mass marches. This bomb was unlike over twenty others the Klan had set off in town, all unsolved, since blowing up Shuttlesworth’s home in December 1956—thus the city’s nickname “Bombingham.” The large bomb had a delayed fuse to be detonated remotely.

Sunday at 10:22 am, with a roar heard all over the city, the bomb blasted a seven-foot wide hole through the church basement’s thick wall and decimated the women’s lounge, leaving a large crater. It blew the face of Jesus out of a stained-glass window. Five girls had just finished their Sunday school class on “the love that forgives.” They were in the lounge helping each other get dressed, all in white, to help lead the youth day service. Addie Mae Collins, 14, was tying the sash of her friend Denise McNair, 11. It happened to be Denise’s birthday. Carole Robertson and Cynthia Wesley, both fourteen, were fixing their hair.

After the explosion the smoke and rubble were so heavy that it took hard digging to reach the four blackened bodies buried on top of each other, “as if they had hugged each other,” their pastor said, one girl decapitated.

The girls’ identities were revealed only by shoes and rings. Addie Mae’s younger sister Sarah barely survived the carnage.

With rioting breaking out, Reverend Cross stood on the church’s front steps: “We should be forgiving as Christ was forgiving.” He gave the megaphone to Reverend Billups. “Go home and pray for the men who did this evil deed,” Billups told the angry crowd. “We must have love in our hearts for these men.”

One of the bombers, Bobby Cherry, surveyed the grisly scene and told a neighbor there would be more bombings. “He has worn this crime on his chest like a badge of honor,” his prosecutor stated years later. Three of the terrorists were eventually convicted and imprisoned, but it took many years.

Apparently the Klan had not targeted the children, though black kids were their worst enemy. By the hundreds they had streamed out of this devastated church back in May to desegregate white Birmingham. Now in smaller numbers the children were invading white schools.

The rest of Sunday, blacks seeking revenge fought street battles with police and Al Lingo’s savage highway patrol. Cops killed a black man who was trying to get away. Elsewhere two white teenagers shot dead a 14 year-old black boy, Virgil Ware, riding a bicycle. Black men patrolled their neighborhoods with shotguns. One of them, Rev. John Rice, was a high school guidance counselor who had urged students in the spring not to join the protests. But he had taken his eight year-old daughter Condoleezza, the future secretary of state, to accompany him as he aided his students penned in at the fairgrounds. Four months later one of her schoolmates was killed in the church.

Martin King arrived Sunday night, September 15, to a city about to implode. He had dreaded coming. He knew he would be blamed.

“We feel that Birmingham is now in a state of civil disorder, an emergency situation,” he told the press Monday morning. He called for the U.S. Army to take over the city. He wired the President that if he did not take drastic action, “we shall see the worst racial holocaust this nation has ever seen.”

The White House demurred, disappointing King. As in many times past, black forbearance outpaced rage. Street violence diminished before it wrought citywide civil war.

In his eulogy at the slain girls’ funeral, King tried to do for their deaths what Lincoln had done a hundred years before in Gettysburg—transform gory suffering and dying into redemptive rebirth, a new birth of freedom. He had persuaded the parents of three girls to hold a combined funeral for the good of the movement.

The girls died nobly, he said. “They are the martyred heroines of a holy crusade for freedom and human dignity. So they have something to say to us in their death. They say to each of us, black and white alike”—here he was speaking also to himself—“that we must substitute courage for caution.

“The innocent blood of these little girls may well serve as the redemptive force that will bring new light to this dark city. The spilt blood of these innocent girls may cause the whole citizenry of Birmingham to transform the negative extremes of a dark past into the positive extremes of a bright future.”

His words soothed the girls’ grief-stricken families and friends, but unlike on sunny August 28th  in Washington, they fell short of engendering new life in their midst, of delivering heaven to their hell.

SNCC’s John Lewis shepherded car pools of Birmingham youngsters from the funeral to join a growing SNCC voting rights protest in Selma, an hour away, where three hundred citizens were jailed that month. The four girls’ murder ignited the final voting rights campaign, in Mississippi and Alabama, that two years later achieved universal suffrage in the U.S. with the hard-fought passage of the 1965 Voting Rights Act.

In June of this year the Supreme Court tore out the heart of this long overdue but still needed reform that had ensured American citizens’ right to vote for nearly half a century.

[All sources are cited in “We Will Stand Here Till We Die,” chapter 8]

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