”Four Little Girls” is Spike Lee’s immensely dignified and moving reassessment of a terrorist crime. This watershed moment in the history of the civil rights movement, the bombing on Sept. 15, 1963, of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Ala., left four young Sunday school students dead (the oldest were 14) and a nation galvanized by outrage and shame. Thirty-four years later, Mr. Lee and the many witnesses he interviews are able to see both the tragedy and the turning point in this event.
”This was the awakening,” says Walter Cronkite, speaking of how the bombing shocked white America as he is interviewed in Mr. Lee’s first feature-length documentary, a thoughtful, graceful, quietly devastating account. It opens today at the Film Forum in order to qualify for the Academy Award consideration that it well deserves. ”Four Little Girls” will be shown later this year on HBO.
As what will surely be the only Spike Lee film ever to begin with a Joan Baez record (”Birmingham Sunday,” Richard Farina’s mournful ballad about the crime), ”Four Little Girls” starts off on an intimate note. Old photos, fond memories, childhood anecdotes are among the personal touches that help summon Carol Denise McNair, 11, and Addie Mae Collins, Cynthia Wesley and Carole Rosamond Robertson, all 14. One mother even displays her daughter’s Girl Scout sash, adorned with merit badges. Nothing in the scouting credo could have helped this young girl prepare for what fate had in store.
And Denise McNair’s father, one of the film’s most affecting witnesses by virtue of his brave restraint, remembers the day Denise passed the segregated lunch counter at Kress’s store and announced that the smell of frying onions made her hungry. ”I guess that was the night I made up my mind to tell her that she couldn’t have that sandwich because she was black,” Mr. McNair says simply.
Near the airport, Greenwood Cemetery has this historic marker:
This cemetery is the final resting place of three of the four young girls killed in the September 1, 1963 church bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church. Addie Mae Collins, Cynthia Wesley and Carol Robertson are buried here. The fourth victim, Denise McNair, is buried elsewhere. The tragic loss of these lives led to the end of the era of massive resistance to social change in Birmingham and the release of the city from the fear which long paralyzed progress in human relations.
Because I’ve always found cemeteries and monuments so interesting — how people, families choose to represent such a place with material, symbols, quotes, etc — we went to find where the four were:
Unfortunately, Greenwood Cemetery in the past has been beset with upkeep and records issues.
The Carole Robertson Center for Learning in Chicago is named in her honor. Jack and Jill of America, which Carole belonged to, has an annual day in her memory. From Jack and Jill:
In a 1993 article in Essence magazine, internationally known activist Angela Y. Davis, recalled growing up with Carole. Following are excerpts from that article:
“I had known Carole Robertson for almost as long as I could remember. Carole was a few years younger than I; my younger sister Fania’s age. Her sister Dianne was my friend, so Carole was more like a baby sister. I was in France, preparing to study at the Sorbonne, when I learned about the bombing. In tears, I rushed to place a telephone call to my parents, hoping all along that the [news]paper was mistaken. On the day I found out about the bombing, all I could think about were Carole’s bangs and beautiful long braids.”
“My mother told me that Carole had just called her a few days earlier to ask for a ride to a meeting of the newly formed organization Friendship and Action. In light of school-desegregation orders, a group of Black and White parents and teachers had established this organization as a way of ‘letting our children get to know each other’ and of developing grass-roots activist challenges to racism in the schools. Carole, my mother said, wanted to get involved and was extremely excited about this meeting.”
“What bothers me most is that their names have been virtually erased: They are inevitably referred to as “the four Black girls killed in the Birmingham church bombing.” I would like to remember not only the terror that claimed her life and that of her Sunday-school friends, but also the positive lives they claimed for themselves as teenage girls. Along with our memories of that horrible day and what it symbolized, I would also like us all to consider what Carole Robertson, Cynthia Wesley, Addie Mae Collins and Denise McNair might have become.”
Cynthia was a sweet girl with many friends (one of whom, Dr. Freeman Hrabowski, remembers her in the Spike Lee documentary)
Civil Rights Martyr Addie Mae Collins ‘She Died So Freedom Might Live’:
But…Addie Mae’s body is not here. In fact, this isn’t the original monument (which was wooden — this monument replaced the older one in 1990). When her family wanted to move her to Elmwood Cemetery back in the ’90s, there was no casket here, which resulted in a court case. This from the NYT in 2001, regarding Addie Mae’s sister Sarah, whose last name now is Rudolph:
Mrs. Rudolph remembers that Sunday morning clearly. She, Addie Mae and three of their siblings had walked the 16 blocks from their house to the church, as was their ritual. The Collins children never felt fully accepted at 16th Street. Their father was a busboy at a Chinese restaurant, and their mother a domestic worker in white people’s houses, while the church was home to Birmingham’s black elite: doctors, lawyers, teachers and the like.
”There were a lot of wealthy kids in that church,” Mrs. Rudolph said, ”and they looked down on us because we were poor.”
The Collins children arrived late, well into Sunday school, and Addie Mae and 12-year-old Sarah decided to wait in the basement ladies’ lounge until the service began. Before long, Sunday school classes let out, and they were joined by Carole Robertson, Cynthia Wesley and Denise McNair, all of whom would perish moments later. Denise had asked Addie Mae to tie her dress sash, and they were all laughing and talking.
”She didn’t even finish tying the sash when the bomb went boom,” Mrs. Rudolph said. ”I didn’t know what had happened. I said, ‘Jesus.’ And then I just called out: ‘Addie. Addie. Addie.’ ”
There is an Addie Mae Collins Community Service program in East Harlem that provides Head Start and other services to children.
…and Denise McNair, who was originally at Greenwood but is now at Elmwood Cemetery. Carol Denise McNair: ‘She Loved All — But A Mad Bomber Hated Her Kind’:
Denise was the youngest among the girls. She and Condoleezza Rice were friends from kindergarten.
Denise belonged to the Brownies and did a yearly fundraiser for MD in her carport in which she and her friends would put on skits.
The Martin Luther King Jr eulogy for the girls can be found here at the King Center.
Joe Minter‘s art, for the girls:
The report from UPI on the bombing and more here (early on it was believed that the bomb was thrown from a passing car).