Summary: Friday, Sept. 15, marks the 60th anniversary of the church bombing that killed four Black girls. Comments below from Duke University historian Adriane Lentz-Smith are available for use in your coverage.
“Sixty years ago, on Sept. 15, 1963, four white terrorists bombed a church in Birmingham, Alabama, and killed four Black girls. Had they lived, Denise McNair, Cynthia Wesley and Carole Robertson would have been 71 by now. Addie Mae Collins would have been 74,” says Duke University historian Adriane Lentz-Smith. “Instead, they remain 11 and 14 forever, enshrined as ‘Four Little Girls,’ in the Spike Lee documentary of the same name and in civil rights histories that trace how much blood was spilled trying to convince Americans in the 1960s that Black lives matter.”
“Those activists of the 1960s who chose nonviolence as a strategy did so to highlight the ubiquity and repugnance of anti-Black violence — both the state violence on display when Birmingham police chief Bull Connor set dogs on protesting children and adults, as well as the extralegal violence of Klan bombers and their ilk.”
“White supremacist violence outlived the age of segregation. It bears noting that the Birmingham church bombing occurred fewer than three weeks after the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. On that 60th anniversary, Aug. 28, 2023, a white man in Jacksonville, Florida, killed three Black patrons at a Dollar General after failing in his mission to shoot up the historically-Black Edwards Waters University. This is not an echo of segregation-era racial terror; it was its continuation. Then, the rhetoric and tactics of some white parents’ and politicians’ massive resistance to democratic reform stoked the murderous impulses of racist vigilantes. Now, revivification of those tactics — declaring Black voters fraudsters, Black protestors anti-American, and Black history lies — fuels a racist culture war where the casualties are all too real.”
“Historians talk about silence, those omissions and occlusions that make some past events or people harder to access. Those silences sometimes arise from deliberate calculations about whose story is worth collecting, keeping, or teaching. They stem, also from pain: shame and guilt on the part of victims, perpetrators and bystanders alike. But here’s the thing: When you bury pain instead of healing it, the wound gets passed on to the next generation, and when we silence our past, we distort our present.”
“Our children deserve to know American history, the shadows as well as the light, and they should see us striving to craft a brighter present. To that end, we should mark the anniversary of the Birmingham church bombing and honor the dead by securing civil rights for the living.”
Adriane Lentz-Smith is associate professor and associate chair in Duke’s department of history, where she teaches courses on the civil rights movement, Black lives and modern America. A scholar of African American history and 20th century U.S. history, she is writing a book about police violence during the twilight of the civil rights era.
For additional comment, contact Adriane Lentz-Smith at: