Four Little Girls: Shattered Innocence

By Jennifer Lyons

Birmingham, Alabama, was the epicenter for violence and racial bigotry. Over a span of seven years, from 1956 to 1963, the city fell victim to at least twenty racially motivated bombings and attempted bombings. As a result, Birmingham gained the nickname "Dynamite Hill." In 1994, director Spike Lee produced a powerful documentary entitled "4 Little Girls." In his film, Lee focuses on the fatal day in September 1963 when the Sixteenth Baptist Church in Birmingham was bombed, an act of violence that ultimately claimed the lives of four young girls. The documentary offers an intimate look into the lives of the families and friends personally impacted by "Birmingham Sunday." However, he does not stop there. Lee interviews others such as George Wallace, Coretta Scott King, and Bill Cosby to give a vivid account of how the civil rights movement challenged the mores of Birmingham.

Violence permeated every aspect of the city. Many white citizens believed the bombings to be a simple attempt to scare African Americans away from engaging in the civil rights movement that had taken root. Leaders of the movement such as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., began to gravitate to the city, deeming it an ideal place to base civil demonstrations. After fearfully watching the growing intensity of violence, Dr. King declared Birmingham "the most thoroughly segregated city in the country."

Racism and segregation were deeply embedded within the soul of the city. Advocates of change such as the Southern Christian Leadership Coalition and other organizations poured into the streets of Alabama to battle the power of bigotry that had a death hold on the state's vitality. Birmingham stood as a daily threat to those who chose to participate in demonstrations. One of the dominating opponents came in the form of the Commissioner of Public Safety, Eugene "Bull" Connor. It is ironic that a man whose behavior evinced overpowering disdain and hatred for an entire race simultaneously held the position of "protector." Connor never attempted to hide his utter contempt for African Americans. In his eyes, not only were they inferior but they should never have been granted the status of American citizens.

Under his direction, the police rendered dehumanizing actions against protesters, such as the use of attack dogs and high pressure hoses. Newspapers and television vividly showed protesters, including children, being washed down the streets of the city or viciously attacked by police dogs. "Bull" displayed other disturbing behaviors such as riding through black neighborhoods in a white tank to symbolize his seemingly omnipotent control over the citizens of the city. In the documentary, Christopher McNair, father of bombing victim Denise McNair, describes Connor as the mascot or voice of the rest Southern society. He states, "Bull Connor couldn't exist without the approval of the status quo."

"Bull" Connor was not the only political advocate for segregation. Most Americans who lived through these years vividly remember the governor of Alabama, George Wallace, and the physical stands he took to prevent desegregation. Wallace is most remembered for standing in the doors of the University of Alabama in an attempt to prohibit the entrance of Autherine Lucy. His words resonated throughout the state: "Segregation today. Segregation tomorrow. Segregation forever!" People would later place blame at the feet of the governor for creating a volatile society which inevitably would succumb to violence. Dr. King berated Governor Wallace following the bombing of Sixteenth Baptist Church. He stated, "the blood of four little children. . . is on your hands. Your irresponsible and misguided actions have created in Birmingham and Alabama the atmosphere that has induced continued violence and now murder." An accumulation of hatred, increasing violence, and utter disdain of desegregation helped pave the way to what would be known as the "Bloody Sunday."

The parents of one of the victims, Christopher and Maxine McNair, met while Chris was attending Tuskegee in Alabama. Drawn to each other almost immediately, the couple would later marry. A few years after they married, Maxine announced that she was pregnant. It would be their first child; they would name her Denise. As her father recounts the vibrant life that emanated from her inquisitive eyes and contagious smile, he eloquently brings her back to life. She immediately became "daddy's girl." Both parents recall how difficult it was for a child to grow up in those times, a period where segregation seemed unwavering. Denise, only eleven when she was murdered, repeatedly questioned the place of segregation, never understanding the reasons for its place in society. Parents struggled with the task of having to explain the existence of the color-line, relegating African Americans to a position of inferiority. Mr. McNair described having to explain to Denise why she could not buy a sandwich at a white counter. The hurt evident on his face defined that day as one of his most painful experiences, barring the death of his daughter.

On September 15, Chris McNair dropped his daughter off at Sixteenth Baptist Church. Denise was an active member of her church. She was always eager to participate in as many aspects of church fellowship as she could. As he drove away, Chris could not know that it would be the last time he would see the bright smile of his beautiful eleven year old daughter.
Mr. and Mrs. Claude Wesley adopted Cynthia when she was an infant in 1949. She was their first child. An outgoing girl, Cynthia was actively involved in her school as well as her church. The Wesley later adopted another daughter named Shirley Wesley King. She recounts in the documentary the last time she and her parents saw Cynthia before she made her fateful walk to church. Overwhelmed with emotion, Shirley read the scene that took place between Cynthia and Mrs. Wesley as the mother chided Cynthia for letting her slip show beneath the hem of her dress:

Mom chided her for letting her slip show beneath the hem that morning saying, "Young lady, your slip is hangin below your dress. You don't just put your clothes on any ways when you're going to church because you never [know] how you're coming back.
Unaware of the fatal irony of that statement, Cynthia hurriedly fixed her dress and rushed out the door to meet her friend Addie Mae Collins that morning and they walked to church together.
Addie Mae Collins was also a vibrant and loving fourteen year old girl. In the film, several of her friends and family describe her warm personality that drew people to her. A childhood friend describes her as, "To know Addie Mae, was to love her." Like the other girls, Addie Mae came from a hardworking family and who were not involved in the movement that was engulfing Birmingham. A friend and classmate tells of the last words he shared with Addie Mae the previous Friday as they left school. He recalls, "I remember walking and laughing with her as we left our class to go home. When we got to the edge of the school yard, we turned and said ' I'll see you Monday.' And that was the last time I saw her alive." Addie Mae, also an active youth at the church, rarely missed a Sunday. She was waiting for Cynthia Wesley that morning and they walked to church together. Characteristic of girls their age, Addie Mae and Cynthia took their time as they tossed a purse back and forth, laughing straight into destruction.

The fourth girl whose innocent love of God and church resulted in her violent death was Carole Robertson. Carole was born to Alvin and Alpha Robertson in 1949. She was their third child. Sharing a quality found in all the girls, Carole was an active member of Sixteenth Baptist Church. She, like Addie Mae and Cynthia, was fourteen the day she stepped into the church. A leader and energetic youth, Carole participated in a number of school activities such as the school band. Running late, Alvin Robertson dropped his daughter off at the front of the church. She jumped out of the car and Mr. Robertson watched Carole run into the church and drove away, never to see her again.

Sunday school classes were in full swing that Sunday morning prior to the explosion. The youth, including Denise, Cynthia, Addie Mae, and Carole, were located in the basement of the church. At 10:19 AM, the phone rang in the office of the church. The caller simply replied, "Three minutes," and then hung up. The woman who answered the phone could not have known what the power and destruction those two words wielded. Three minutes later, the church clock stopped at 10:22 A.M. as twenty pounds of dynamite detonated in the basement. Adults in class upstairs were unaware of the destruction that obliterated a side of their building, wounding many and killing four. Maxine McNair was the only parent of the four girls actually present at the time of the explosion. As they mustered some composure, people fled out into the street, disoriented and fearful of what they would see.

The police, many of whom were either Klansmen or affiliated with KKK members, arrived on the scene almost immediately. The devastation stunned the nation. Hundreds of people stood outside the building frantically searching for loved ones.

The explosion resonated throughout the surrounding neighborhood, shaking the walls of homes. The parents of the girls rushed to the site. After the paramedics arrived and began bringing out the wounded, people stood horrified as four stretchers filed out with little bodies covered by white sheets. At the hospital families of the four girls waited to identify the tattered bodies. Maxine McNair remembers an encounter with a nurse who refused to allow her to identify and hold Denise. "I was outraged. Who did she think she was by trying to take that privilege away from me of identifying my own daughter," Maxine says through eyes overcome with anger and pain. Chris McNair describes the condition of eleven year old Denise. Her head was impaled with a large piece of brick. After identifying her, the family requested the brick be removed and given to them. They still have it today. Addie Mae's sister, Junie Collins, identified her sister. Junie was traumatized to such a degree that thirty years later she still suffers from panic attacks and is afraid of being confined within buildings.

As the nation turned on their televisions that morning, images of blood riddled people, a destroyed church, and dead children bombarded their homes. Although this was not the first church bombing the country had witnessed, it had a powerful impact on society. People disagreed with aggressive actions of racists, but often sat idly by, believing racism did not directly affect them. However, most Americans opposed the desecration of churches, but more importantly, could not tolerate the murdering of children. The combination of the two became a powerful catalyst for immediate action to remove racial violence. Famous TV anchor, Walter Cronkite, eloquently defines that Sunday, "At that moment, America understood the real nature of the hate that was preventing integration, particularly in the South, but also throughout America. This was the awakening."

In "4 Little Girls," Spike Lee masterfully recaptures the brutality and horror that engulfed much of Birmingham throughout the 1950s to the late 1960s. Without the typical high glamour of Hollywood, Lee relies solely on the raw emotion and memories of the families of the girls who died at the hand of hate on September 15, 1963. It is a captivating and powerfully moving documentary that leaves the viewer horrified at the evil of man, yet inspired by the strength of those who suffered the ultimate price of hate.

Further Reading:
Long Time Coming: An Insider's Story of Birmingham Church Bombing That Rocked the World, Elizabeth H. Cobbs, Patricia J. Smith (1994)
Until Justice Rolls Down: The Birmingham Church Bombing Case, Frank Sikora (1991)
Civil Rights, the White House, and the Justice Department, 1945-1968: Racial Violence and Law Enforcement in the South, Michael R. Belknap (editor) (1991)
Victims & Heroes: Racial Violence in the African American Novel, Jerry H. Bryant (1997)
An Eyewitness History of the Civil Rights Movement, Sanford Wexler (1999)
Blacks and Social Change: Impact of the Civil Rights Movement in Southern Communities, James W. Button (1993)
The Civil Rights Movement: Struggle and Resistance, William Terence Martin Riches (1997)
Free At Last: A History of the Civil Rights Movement and Those Who Died in the Struggle, Sara Bullard (1994)