Their Murders Ushered in a New Era For Civil Rights, But Few Even Know Their Names

Four Birmingham girls in a church bathroom on an ordinary Sunday morning became martyrs at the hands of 3 white men. Justice took nearly 40 years to come, and we need to make their names KNOWN.

(Left to right) Carole Robertson (14), Denise McNair (11), Addie Mae Collins (14), and Cynthia Wesley (14).

Cynthia Wesley. Carole Robertson. Addie Mae Collins. Denise McNair.

Chances are, you’ve never heard their names. But we should all KNOW them, and make them known. They are American martyrs, children killed by adults filled with hate.

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On the morning of September 15, 1963, less than a month after Martin Luther King Jr. led more than 250,000 people in a march on Washington, DC, the phone rang off the hook at Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama. The southern town had seen its share of violence during the Civil Rights Movement – after all, in this hotbed of segregation, the Ku Klux Klan, a morally corrupt government, and the voices of whites with deeply rooted Confederate ties called the shots. But the church secretary and her junior assistant, Carolyn, couldn’t figure out why callers kept hanging up, menacing voices threatening to bomb the church.

Then the phone rang one last time.

“Three minutes,” a male voice on the other end of the line stated, before Carolyn could even say hello. What went through her mind at that moment? Did she wonder if his words were true, if her church would be the third Birmingham bombing in eleven days’ time? Or did she, a young black girl, merely do as she’d been instructed to do, quietly, dutifully “living black” in the Jim Crow South?

She hung up the phone.

Three minutes later, nineteen sticks of dynamite planted under the front steps of the church exploded – and Cynthia Wesley, Carole Robertson, Addie Mae Collins, and Denise McNair died. 

Minutes away from leading the church service on Youth Sunday, the girls, three aged fourteen and one age eleven, readied themselves in the upstairs bathroom – smoothing their hair, fixing their lip-gloss, smoothing wrinkles clean – doing the same as our daughters would do, as we would do before a big event. They never made it out of the restroom.

The effects that day were staggering: more than twenty church members were injured in the blast, and Sarah Collins, a 10-year old girl, lost her right eye in the explosion. The burst blew motorists from their cars, destroying nearby vehicles parked outside, shattering windows of homes and buildings blocks away. A protest broke out in the city later that day, prompting Alabama state Governor David Wallace – a known segregationist – to send hundreds of state troopers and police officers to break up the crowd.

Not unlike today, the outcries weren’t without consequence. During the riots, two black teenage boys, 16-year old Johnny Robinson and 13-year old Virgil Ware, were shot and killed – Johnny in the back by an police officer never indicted for the crime, and Virgil in the face by an Eagle Scout, sentenced to probation.

The story isn’t all that new, for history just repeats itself, over and over again. But the perpetrators of this crime never believed their actions would ultimately come to change the course of history.

The bombing woke a sleepy nation from her dreams. Americans, hearts stirred by King’s words less than three weeks earlier, that “…one day, right there in Alabama, little black boys and little black girls [would] join hands with little white boys and little white girls, as sisters and brothers,” got woke. Soon, it wasn’t a question of if, but a question of when. When could the U.S. ensure that every life has value, that every life has meaning – including the lives of our black and brown brothers and sisters?

Some of us utter the same cry today, for ourselves, for our children, for friends and strangers alike.

The Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), led by Dr. King, took to action: King met with President Lyndon B. Johnson and implored him to make voting rights a federal mandate for all citizens, including African Americans. Johnson refused. The group adopted Selma, Alabama as their target city for voter registration rights and began plannig a nonviolent crusade from Selma to “Bombingham,” if the President refused to change voting privileges. Johnson refused. While the President had signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the timing for the new initiative wasn’t right in his mind. He implored King to wait it out.

But the SCLC could not wait when murder claimed the lives of four young black girls, two young black men and countless other black men and women; although their deaths weren’t anything new, national media coverage changed the matter altogether.

They could not wait when convictions came not to the perpetrators of the crime – because government officials did not allow blacks the right to register to vote, they were not afforded a seat on the jury. Unable to sit in the jury pool, they have no ability to convict wrongful murderers.

So, what, I ask, would you do, were you in their shoes? How would you respond?

I think of my sons: my beautiful, caramel and cappuccino-skinned boys. I think of how every mama-bone in my body goes rigid when I sense harm coming their way: a potential fall down the stairs, a car that drives too close to the sidewalk, an excluding peer on the playground. If any perceived harm even begins to come from a place of hate, from a place of injustice, or from a place of prejudice because of the mixed color of their skin, I stop at nothing to protect my children. I speak truth. I educate. I do not let the fear and assumptions of others have the last word.

Instead, I fight tooth and nail to nurture, care for and protect my children – as I wait for the mighty waters of justice to roll in, to cover, surround, and protect my babies.

Is it not the same for every mother out there? Is it not the same for you?

It was the same for King, father of Yolanda, Denise, Martin and Dexter. Days before the third attempted march over Edmund Pettus Bridge – but not before further violence and murder took its toll – a federal judge, now backed by the support of the President, lifted the injunction against marching. Protected by the Alabama National Guard, 2000 army troops and 1000 military policemen, on March 25, 1965, 25,000 people began the 54-mile journey from the State Capital Building.

Soon thereafter, Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act. No longer could states and counties place outlandish restrictions, including literacy tests and poll taxes, violence and intimidation, upon individuals who wanted to exercise the right to vote.

Far from over, the story doesn’t stop here.

Just as injustice plagues our country on a daily basis – sometimes, it seems, in growing numbers – justice did not come to the families of Cynthia, Carole, Addie Mae and Denise, for nearly fifty years.

The FBI, of course, knew the crime’s perpetrators.

Less than a month after the bombing, courts charged Klan member Robert “Dynamite Bob” Chamberliss with murder and with buying 122 sticks of dynamite; immediately acquitted of the murder charges, Chamberliss served six months in jail and received a $100 fine for the dynamite. An FBI investigation revealed that three other men – Thomas E. Blanton Jr., Bobby Frank Cherry and Herman Cash – assisted him with the crime, but in 1968, the FBI closed its investigation, without filing additional charges.

Did the courts lack sufficient evidence? Had justice inadvertently been served with the enactment of the Voting Rights Act? Did America merely lose interest in prosecuting the executioners of the crime?

Hardly.

Under the leadership of FBI chairman and known segregationist, J. Edgar Hoover, the FBI hid key evidence and blocked prosecution. In 1971, Alabama attorney general Bill Baxley reopened the case, and seven years later, sentenced Chamberliss to life in prison for the murders. Years later, in 2001 and 2002 respectively, the state of Alabama found Blanton and Cherry, the only two remaining criminals still alive, guilty on four counts of murder.

Now, I don’t know about you, but this makes me seethe. This rattles my bones. This causes injustice to rise and wail and make itself home in my throat.

I choke back tears as I quietly hum the psalmist’s words: How long, how long, how long to sing this song?

And I wait for justice to rain down, then and now.

Cythnia Wesley. Carole Robertson. Addie Mae Collins. Denise McNair.

These names meant nothing to me until a couple of weeks ago. Like roll call at the beginning of a class period, their monikers absently clucked off my tongue, one after the other – first name, last name, check, check. Meaningless as to their mark on history, ignorant to the cause and effect their deaths had on our country.

But these names matter more than ever today.

How many more black and brown lives – young and old, male and female, city dweller and suburbanite – will be viciously erased from census polls before we make do on King’s dream, and “…be able to transform the jangling discords of our nation into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood.”

I wonder how long Sonja, a second grade teacher, will work to calm the hearts of her students who shout, “We have to move back to Mexico!” I wonder how long Kim will fear for her three black sons, the oldest of whom was born with Down syndrome. I wonder how long Leah’s son will differentiate himself from his Somalian classmates, realizing his luck at being born American.

I wonder, I wonder, I wonder – and I hope, because when history feels like it’s repeating itself, over again and again, hope is all I’ve got. 

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Editor’s note: To learn more about the bombing and how it propelled the Civil Rights movement to march fervently toward the Voting Rights Act, I highly encourage you to watch the movie Selma. It’s available digitally on Hulu or Amazon Prime, and it’s fantastic. If you like to read, the church junior secretary who answered the phone that morning, Carolyn (Maull) McKinstry, wrote a book about the bombing, available on Amazon: While the World Watched.

Cara Meredith
Cara Meredith is a writer, speaker and musician from the Seattle area. She is passionate about theology and books, her family, meals around the table, and finding Beauty in the most unlikely of places. A seven on the Enneagram, she also can’t help but try to laugh and smile at the ordinary everyday. You can connect with her on her blogFacebook, and Twitter  

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