Sixty years ago, and now...Remembering "Four Little Girls": Addie Mae Collins, Carol Denise Mcnair, Cynthia Diane Wesley, and Caraloe Robertson
In commemoration of four little girls, Addie Mae Collins, Carol Denise McNair, Cynthia Diane Wesley, and Carole Robertson, who were murdered 60 years ago in the cowardly and disgraceful act of bombing the 16th Street Baptist Church, Birmingham, Alabama.
Students from Boston University School of Theology gather in the beautiful sanctuary of the 16th Baptist Church, Birmingham, Alabama on March 7, 2023, with Pastor Reverend Arthur Price, a former student of mine from Colgate-Rochester Divinity School.
Over the years, I have led various groups on tours of “sites of memory” of the Modern Civil Rights Movement to Birmingham, Selma, Montgomery, and Atlanta. Participants are invited to share their hearts, minds and souls on this intimate journey that explores pathways to racial justice in America through ethical leadership. Our team prepares for this special time with fellow pilgrims and provides them with critical resources to continue this journey beyond our time together. An integral dimension of our journey is what we call “sites of memory.” These are sites that mark our incredible path into the heart of America’s past and allow us to pause and remember, retell, and relive what this complex narrative means for our nation’s future. French historian Pierre Nora writes:
Sites of memory are spaces where memory crystallizes and secretes itself … at a particular historical moment, a turning point where consciousness of a break with the past is bound up with the sense that memory has been torn– but torn in such a way as to pose the problem of the embodiment of memory in certain sites where a sense of historical continuity persists. There are lieux de memoire, sites of memory, because there are no longer milieux de memoire, real environments of memory. 1
Our visitation of these sites of memory affords us opportunity to learn, reflect and feel the deep sense of history embodied in these important spaces where memory indeed “crystallizes and secretes itself” and makes us more conscious of where we are in the present and what our moral obligation as citizens demand of us for this time. Since these sites are so integrally related to the civil rights movement and the work of Martin Luther King, Jr., we highlight their remarkable journey through his lens and other brave souls in their struggle for racial justice.
One of the most special moments is always our journey to the 16th Street Baptist Church where four little girls, Addie Mae Collins, Carol Denise McNair, Cynthia Diane Wesley, and Carole Robertson, were murdered in a cowardly and disgraceful act of bombing. Below are some facts and questions for us to contemplate as we move into a precarious future where these atrocious acts of violence are on the rise.
Students with the Reverend Dr. Carolyn Maull McKinstry, Sunday School classmate and friend of the four little girls on March 7, 2023. Her ministry of memory in word and presence is an important marker and inspiration for our struggle for racial justice and equity.
Eulogy for Martyred Children at 16th St. Baptist Church
On September 15, 1963, four young girls were killed in a bombing at 16th St. Baptist Church. The bombing victims were Addie Mae Collins, Carol Denise McNair, Cynthia Diane Wesley, and Carole Robertson. As part of the racial violence that menaced African-Americans during the Jim Crow era, the bombing was intended to intimidate and reroute the efforts of King and other civil rights advocates.
King’s eulogy was delivered at the funeral service on September 18, 1963 for Collins, McNair, and Wesley. Although a separate service was held for Robertson, King’s eulogy addressed the brief, shortened lives of the four little girls. Because the bombing and funeral services took place less than a month after the galvanizing March on Washington and “I Have a Dream” speech, King not only faced the challenge of falling into despair himself. He sought to inspire all those committed to the struggle for justice to not lose faith. “Somehow,” voiced King during the eulogy, “we must believe that the most misguided among [our white brothers] can learn to respect the dignity and the worth of all living personality.” 2
Eulogy for the Martyred Children, 18 September 1963, Birmingham, AL., https://kinginstitute.stanford.edu/eulogy-martyred-children
Can you cite contemporary examples of this atrocious act of violence perpetrated on these young girls? What is our moral responsibility as citizens to the examples that you cite?
Imagine yourself preparing a eulogy for the lives lost in your community as a result of violence. What would be the primary theme of your eulogy? What would you say?
An earlier group of BU students on March 10, 2020, gather with Reverend Dr. Carolyn Maull McKinstry.