On the morning of Sunday, September 15, 1963, the girls were in the basement of their church, putting on their choir robes and getting ready for the service, no doubt giggling and teasing and helping each other. Upstairs in the office the phone rang and the caller said ‘Three minutes.’ One minute later an explosion caused by at least 15 sticks of dynamite that had been buried beneath the turf blasted open the basement wall causing a hole that was seven feet across. On the other side of the wall, four little girls would never make it to sing and praise the Lord, their short lives snuffed out by an act so cruel and so cowardly that it shocked the world.
The world had been shocked before by events in Birmingham, Alabama, particularly the events in a park across the street from the church where civil rights campaigners would gather to protest the injustices of life in the world’s wealthiest country, an alleged democracy where millions of people couldn’t even sit down at a diner counter and order a burger because of the color of their skin. It was in this park in May 1963 that protestors – most of them children and students – were soaked by firehoses and attacked by police dogs, ugly images that made their way around the world.
Today the patch of grass beneath which the bomb was buried in the night by members of the Ku Klux Klan is marked by a simple memorial, and the 16th Street Baptist Church tries to balance its work as a church with its role as a civil rights landmark. The bombing reverberated all the way to the White House, and nine months later President Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964 which made it illegal to discriminate against someone because of their race, their religion or their gender. Standing behind the president as he signed the act was Martin Luther King Jnr – who himself would be dead nine months later. The men who carried out the bombing would remain at liberty for decades.
The story of the struggle for civil rights, and particularly of the events in the city that became known as Bombingham, is told in the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute, through whose windows the 16th Street Baptist Church can be seen. The institute opened in 1992 but its bright design and interactivity make it feel as modern as tomorrow. Voices and videos accompany you as you walk through the displays, no voice more distinctive or more powerful than the preacher whose words can still move the listener to tears and build hope in the heart:
‘I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character. I have a dream today!’
But nothing is as moving as the final displays in the museum, where cases hold some of the items recovered from the explosion at the otherwise ordinary church over the road. Beneath the newspaper headlines which screamed the story are items which. instead, whisper of the horrors suffered on that Sunday morning in 1963. Here are the shoes that were on the feet of 11-year-old Denise McNair when her body was recovered after being blown through the air and crushed beneath the falling rubble, the shoes donated by her family. Here too is a piece of brick that was blasted into her skull.
Also here are the smiling faces of the other little girls, all 14, who sang in the choir with Denise: Addie Mae Collins, Cynthia Wesley, and Carole Robertson. They may never have got to sing the hymns that were planned for that Sunday service, but their voices and the voices of others like them would never be silenced.
All photos © Mike Gerrard