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Saturday, October 22, 2016

This is for four women who are not here.

It is for grandchildren who never existed and retirement celebrations that were never held. It is for Sunday dinners that were never prepared in homes that were never purchased. It is for children who were never born and fathers who never got to walk daughters down the aisle. It is for mortarboards that were never flung into the air, for first kisses that were never stolen, for dreams that ended even as they still were being conceived.

This is for four little girls who died, 50 years ago today.

Died. It is, in this context, a misleading word. Makes it sound as if maybe 11-year-old Denise McNair and 14-year-old Addie Mae Collins, Cynthia Wesley and Carole Robertson succumbed to some disease. Hearing it, you might not realize they died because terrorists planted a bomb beneath an exterior stairway of their church and that it exploded while they were in the basement preparing for Sunday school. You might not realize that a chunk of concrete embedded itself in one child’s skull or that another child’s head was torn from her body.

Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, AL, had been the nerve center of a human rights campaign that made the city notorious the previous spring, the place from which nonviolent armies poured to face snarling dogs and high-pressure hoses under the command of Police Commissioner Bull Connor. Because this was what you had to do if you were African-American and wanted to drink from a clean public fountain, try on clothes in a department store or buy a hamburger at a lunch counter in Birmingham.

The marchers won that battle and their movement was at a summit of hope by the time it convened in Washington to march in support of federal legislation. “I have a dream today!” the great man roared, and it must have felt, on that transcendent day, as if that dream shimmered at the very verge of reality.

Eighteen days later, the bomb exploded at 16th Street Baptist, where the Sunday school lesson was to have been “The Love That Forgives.” And the summit of inspiration gave way to a yawning abyss of despair.

At a funeral for three of the little girls — Carole’s family buried her separately — the great man sought to find the message in their deaths. This tragedy, he said, should challenge preachers who meet hatred with silence, politicians who use it to buy votes, a federal government that compromises with conservative hypocrisy and African-Americans who passively accept status quo.

He preached against despair and loss of faith. But he also let slip something that suggested how deeply even he, Martin Luther King, a mighty preacher of the Christian gospel, was shaken by this event. “Life is hard,” he said, “at times as hard as crucible steel.”

Indeed. Just when you think you know the depths to which people can sink, the extremes to which they can go in their sheer, pathological hatred, something happens that takes your breath away.

That’s what that day did. The martyrdom of four little girls made a nation question its conscience — What kind of people kill children in church? — and so, helped turn the tide toward freedom. Congress said as much last week in awarding them its Gold Medal.

But to consider America 50 years later, still swathed in its tribalism, proud in its manifold hatreds, righteous in its denials, is to be reminded that tides are not permanent. They ebb and flow. And the battle to make America live up to the first sentence of its founding document — the one about the “self-evident” truth of equality — is ever ongoing.

“Change” King once said, “does not roll in on the wheels of inevitability, but comes through continuous struggle.” Such struggle is the price of freedom.

And a debt we owe four women who are not here.

(Leonard Pitts is a columnist for The Miami Herald, 1 Herald Plaza, Miami, Fla., 33132. Readers may contact him via email at[email protected].)

Photo: Birmingham News, File

  • disqus_ivSI3ByGmh

    Amen, Leonard. Amen.

  • Marilyn

    Thank you for this beautifully written piece reminding us of the horrible act which took those innocent lives full of potential. The same sort of hatred that produced that bombing is still with us today and we all have a responsibility to speak out against it instead of just silently shaking our heads and lamenting the hateful rhetoric.

  • Allan Richardson

    And that, according to a conservative blogger on an unrelated post, was “before” this country had to deal with terrorists. I guess to that blogger and others, a terrorist who is white, “Christian” and “standing up for states’ rights” is not planting a “terrorist bomb” the way a “Muslim” might.

    Their souls are blessed, but those of us who still practice racial stereotyping need to repent, not merely “honor” their memory with lip service. Anyone who says there were never any terrorists in America until the ’90s is either totally ignorant of history, or may “approve” of what OUR terrorists did (as recently as 1996) in our country. Anyone who assumes “all Muslims” are terrorists out to impose Sharia law (which is actually a very generic term for a variety of interpretations of Muslim teachings, rather like the Talmud) needs to ask if they are being fair to the millions of Muslims who ONLY want to practice their own faith without persecution. And there are other groups of people stereotyped with some “bad” label (or even with an exaggerated “good” label, such as “Asian geniuses”), too many to list.

    ALL violence is evil, whether it is white supremacists bombing a black church, 19 Saudi Muslims hijacking planes to take down office buildings full of people, or a sick individual burning a mosque (or, without bothering to do the research, even a Sikh temple).

  • angelsinca

    “But to consider America 50 years later, still swathed in its tribalism, proud in its manifold hatreds..”

    I remember this incident. I was 7 years old and as horrified to learn of it then as I am now. As a nation, we have journeyed a very long way from this brand of racism and we all deserve to be proud of that difficult accomplishment. Yet, some writers seem compelled to keep dragging us back there with statements like this. Who is “proud in its manifold hatreds”, really?