This Sunday marks the 50th anniversary of the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing in Birmingham, Alabama. Events in the Berkshires and across the country will commemorate the tragic day.
On Tuesday, Congress awarded Congressional Gold Medals to surviving family members of the four black girls killed September 15, 1963 in a bombing carried out by members of the Ku Klux Klan. The nation’s highest civilian honor was given to Addie Mae Collins, Denise McNair, Carole Robertson and Cynthia Wesley. Professor Stewart Burns is the Assistant Director of the Center for Learning in Action at Williams College. He has written an autobiography of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and studied the Civil Rights Movement. He says the bombing is often forgotten among the other momentous events of the movement.
"I’ve always felt that the four girls who were killed were not given the honor that they were due and that a lot of the lesser known activists in Civil Rights Movement back then and ever since have not gotten credit, acknowledge or honor,” said Burns.
Burns is the co-coordinator of “Four Girls Jubilee,” a call to action for colleges, social groups, and houses of worship to commemorate the girls’ deaths.
"To ring their bells or chimes four times at 10:22,” he said. “That is the moment 50 years ago that the bomb exploded.”
Lani Wilson, a junior history major at Williams, is helping Burns lead the charge. She says she derives her passion for social justice and change after a difficult childhood and the loss of her brother.
"My father, Jason and I were homeless at the time,” Wilson said. “Between changing situations and being in different shelters; witnessing things that no one should ever see.”
Wilson says young people like herself take the rights they have for granted, which makes it even more important to remember events such as “Birmingham Sunday.”
“There were people who died, who were bombed, were lynched,” she said. “I think having the term‘a post-racial society,’ having an African American president, and movements towards gay rights, it’s very easy to forget how recent it was.”
Both Wilson and Burns agree recognizing the church bombing is particularly relevant today after the Supreme Court invalidated a portion of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Following the June decision, nine states, mostly in the South, can make changes to their election laws without advance federal approval.
“We do not even have universal suffrage in this country,” Burns said. “We are still struggling for that. The response to the bombing of the church led to the voting rights campaign that led to the Voting Rights Act. We’re hoping these commemorations have an impact on revitalizing efforts to restore and strengthen the Voting Rights Act now.”
Burns recalls Denise McNair, who had wanted to participate in the Children’s Crusade marches in Birmingham in May 1963.
“Her mother would not let her go because she thought they were too dangerous and said maybe you ought to go to church instead,” he said. “So she went to church and she died in church, not on the streets.”
Events in the Berkshires include a showing of Spike Lee’s documentary “4 Little Girls” at Williams College. On Sunday, Burns will co-lead a ceremony at the First Congregational Church in Williamstown. In Pittsfield, there will be a service at Price Memorial A.M.E Zion Church and a candlelight vigil at Park Square.
Cynthia Wesley, Carole Robertson, Addie Mae Collins, and Denise McNairCynthia Wesley, Carole Robertson, Addie Mae Collins, and Denise McNair