Sixty years ago, on September 15, 1963, four little girls were changing into choir robes and chatting in a church restroom as they prepared for the youth Sunday services being held that morning at 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama. Instead, at 10:22 a.m., a bundle of dynamite that White supremacists had hidden under the church steps exploded.
The bomb was attached to a timer that had been deliberately set to go off during worship services. Fourteen-year-olds Addie Mae Collins, Carole Robertson, and Cynthia Wesley and 11-year-old Denise McNair were all killed.
Carole was a straight-A student, a member of the science club and the Girl Scouts, and played clarinet in the school band. Cynthia played clarinet too, along with piano, and dreamed of being a teacher.
Denise, the youngest, was excited about singing in the youth chorus; future secretary of state Condoleezza Rice, a childhood friend, remembered that they performed in musical skits and played dolls together. Addie was one of seven siblings and loved softball and drawing. Her 12-year-old sister Sarah was with her in the church restroom, and remembered that Denise had just asked Addie to help her tie the sash on the back of her dress when the bomb went off.
Two more Black teenagers were killed in the racial violence that swept through Birmingham in the hours after the bombings: 16-year-old Johnny Robinson was shot and killed by a police officer, and 13-year-old Virgil Ware was shot and killed by a White teenager carrying a Confederate flag.
Addie’s sister Sarah, now Sarah Collins Rudolph, lost her right eye following the explosion and was among the child survivors at the church who lived with the trauma of the day for decades. Their older sister Junie remembered that she and Addie had gotten into an argument that morning because she’d lost one of Addie’s rings, and the next time she saw Addie was when she was asked to identify her sister in the morgue. Her face was so unrecognizable Junie only knew her by a single shoe.
Barbara Cross, whose father was the church’s pastor, was hit in the head with a light fixture and suffered tremors and fear of loud noises for years afterwards. During remembrances 10 years ago she said, “I still cry sometimes… We didn’t know we were victims of terrorism back then. For years we tucked it away and tried to be strong.”
Collins Rudolph, who wrote a book called “The Fifth Little Girl,” still has glass in her body from the explosion 60 years later and suffers painful ongoing medical needs and bills, but continues to speak out and share her story.
The theme for the Sunday school lessons and the sermon that was planned but never preached that morning was “A Love That Forgives,” and she has said that though it took her years, she ultimately embraced that message. “I was angry for a long time, and I knew I had to forgive these people that hurt me… I had to forgive them, because I didn’t want to carry this hate in my heart.”
She recently said this is the lesson she still wants to share with young people today: “Those girls—they didn’t live their lives because of the color of our skin… It’s time for us to all love one another.”
Four little rocking chairs on the front porch of the lodge at the Children’s Defense Fund’s Alex Haley Farm honor Addie Mae Collins, Denise McNair, Carole Robertson and Cynthia Wesley, and help young people who are movement leaders today learn about the extraordinary sacrifices children made to help change America as frontline soldiers and transforming catalysts during the Civil Rights Movement.
Children were the shock troops who parted threatening crowds to attend newly desegregated schools. Children attended marches and faced police dogs and fire hoses and filled jails alongside adults. And children were killed by the same hate-filled violence. On this anniversary and every day, our nation owes all of them an enormous debt of gratitude.
Marian Wright Edelman is founder and president emerita of the Children’s Defense Fund.