Opinion: Girls’ deaths moved struggle forward

September 15, 2013


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, Ala., 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 Jr., winner of the 2004 Pulitzer Prize for commentary, is a columnist for the Miami Herald. He chats with readers from noon to 1 p.m. CDT each Wednesday on www.MiamiHerald.com.


Paul Wilson 4 years, 3 months ago

As a black man I am sickened by race baiters like Pitts. Black as I do not want to associate myself with the African tribes that sold their prisoners of war to white men who enslaved them. The ultimate black on black crime that racists like Pitts will never mention. They only serve to stir the pot of racism by attempting to make white people guilty for what some white fool did 50 years ago and to make black people resent white people by somehow relating a few situations today with atrocities of the past. We are not entitled to anything simply because of our race. Guys like Pitts are nothing more than racists. Not unlike a white guy yelling at his weekly meeting 50 years ago. Pitts writes his brand of racism every week. The only difference is their costumes.

tomatogrower 4 years, 3 months ago

So what did the Africans who sold people into slavery have to do with American blacks having to use separate bathrooms, not being allowed to vote, not being allowed to sit at a lunch counter, having separate and very unequal schools, and murdering little girls in churches. You are not Black, and your writing shows that.

Kathy Theis-Getto 4 years, 3 months ago

I totally agree, cynic. I also believe those who keep their head buried in the sand and refuse to shine a light on the continuing racism in our country to be less than honest.

Paul Wilson 4 years, 3 months ago

I've just heard it all my life. Militant family and friends blaming their failures on something a white person did. At some point we need to focus on the present and take responsibility for ourselves. Stop stirring the pot with constant inflammatory 'race baiting/blaming language. Stop blaming white people for something their ancestors may or may not have done. The more you blame white people...the more they will pull away from conversation. I think they just need to die off (old racists both black and white) and let us get on with life without their racist blather to bring us down.

Kathy Theis-Getto 4 years, 3 months ago

But, ribs, what is racist about remembering these precious little girls whose lives were cut short?

tomatogrower 4 years, 3 months ago

White people killed those little girls. There fixed it for you. White people prevented Blacks from doing business and going to school. Whites created the single parent family culture by not allowing slaves to marry and selling off family members, so that's what they were use to. Whites told, and still do tell Blacks that they are stupid and inferior and criminal, and unfortunately several try to live down to those expectations. You obviously are not Black, because you would have been refused a taxi, you would have been followed around in a store, you possibly would have been pulled over by a cop for no apparent reason.

James Minor 4 years, 3 months ago

Pitt's article devotes time for remembrance on those that sacrificed their lives, directly or indirectly. The four girls who lost their lives should remind all people that the struggle is not over, regardless of the color of ones skin who chooses to inflict hate or harm. There is Black on Black crime, White on White crime, Hispanic on Hispanic crime. Why is remembering the tragedy of the four girls wrong and why can't this be a message to all races?

Kathy Theis-Getto 4 years, 3 months ago

It's hard to have honest conversations about racism when folks aren't compelled to accept the truth.

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