Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Four Little Girls

The opening segment of Spike Lee's film
from Birmingham Sunday (Richard Farina 1964)

Eighteen days after the euphoria of the March on Washington, four hundred worshippers crowded into the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham for Sunday services. Only months earlier, the church had been the rallying point for the marches against Bull Connor's police dogs and fire hoses. On September 15, 1963, a group of young girls had just finished a Sunday school lesson and were in the basement changing into their choir robes.
A few blocks away, but within sight of the church, a white man stood waiting on the sidewalk. He was Birmingham truck driver and one-time city employee Robert Edward Chambliss -- the man whom friends in the Eastview 13 Klavern of the Alabama Klan called Dynamite Bob.
At 10:19 A.M., fifteen sticks of explosive blew apart the church basement and the children in the changing room. The four who died were Addie Mae Collins, Carole Robertson, and Cynthia Wesley, all fourteen; and Denise McNair, eleven. Some twenty others were injured.
Henry Hampton and Steve Fayer, eds., Voices of Freedom, New York, NY, 1990, pp. 171-172.
JAMES BEVEL: My first reaction when I heard about the bombing of the church was anger, rage. The bombing felt almost like a personal insult; the reactionary forces of the Klan, or whoever, were trying to teach us a lesson. Then I got information to the effect that some of the guys involved in it were from the sheriff's department, and then I was thinking about killing people. I had to do a lot of thinking about that. That's when I started thinking about what would be the appropriate response to that kind of situation. I think it's natural for human beings to get angry when there's an intense violation, and I think if a person doesn't have the capacity to get angry, they don't have the capacity to think through fully the implications of that which causes them to be angry....
DIANE NASH: My former husband and I, Jim Bevel, cried when we heard about the bombing, because in many ways we felt like our own children had been killed. We knew that the activity of the civil rights movement had been involved in generating a kind of energy that brought out this kind of hostility. We decided that we would do something about it, and we said that we had two options. First, we felt confident that if we tried, we could find out who had done it, and we could make sure they got killed. We considered that as a real option. The second option was that we felt that if blacks in Alabama had the right to vote, they could protect black children. We deliberately made a choice, and chose the second option....
DAVID VANN: I was driving south on Nineteenth Street, which was two blocks from the church, and there on the corner stood Chambliss, a known Klansman, watching all of the commotion and excitement and fire trucks and things that were coming and going. I remember thinking that he looked like a firebug watching his fire.
Of course, several years later he was convicted of being a participant in the bombing. One of the main reasons it was a long time before he was brought to trial is the FBI was called in by the city to do the initial investigation, and there was such a distrust between the Birmingham Police Department and the FBI that the FBI and the Justice Department would never give any of the records to either the state of Alabama or the city of Birmingham. Having been a counterintelligence agent myself, I know the policy of protecting informants had a great deal to do with the FBI policy in those days. But it wasn't until after Jimmy Carter became president that the attorney general of the state, Bill Baxley, and I put all the pressure we could on the new U.S. attorney general, and they did agree to allow a review of those records by the state attorney general's office. Within about six months, prosecution was begun of Mr. Chambliss. Unfortunately, in the meantime, the FBI at least claimed that they had lost all of their records, and most of the physical evidence that the FBI collected at the scene that day was nowhere to be found.

Quoted in Henry Hampton and Steve Fayer, eds., Voices of Freedom, New York, NY, 1990, pp. 172-175.
Lyrics as reprinted in Guy and Candie Carawan, Sing for Freedom: The Story of the Civil Rights Movement through its songs, Bethlehem, PA, 1990, pp. 122-123.
by Richard Farina
Come round by my side and I'll sing you a song.
I'll sing it so softly, it'll do no one wrong.
On Birmingham Sunday the blood ran like wine,
And the choirs kept singing of Freedom.
That cold autumn morning no eyes saw the sun,
And Addie Mae Collins, her number was one.
At an old Baptist church there was no need to run.
And the choirs kept singing of Freedom,
The clouds they were grey and the autumn winds blew,
And Denise McNair brought the number to two.
The falcon of death was a creature they knew,
And the choirs kept singing of Freedom,
The church it was crowded, but no one could see
That Cynthia Wesley's dark number was three.
Her prayers and her feelings would shame you and me.
And the choirs kept singing of Freedom.
Young Carol Robertson entered the door
And the number her killers had given was four.
She asked for a blessing but asked for no more,
And the choirs kept singing of Freedom.
On Birmingham Sunday a noise shook the ground.
And people all over the earth turned around.
For no one recalled a more cowardly sound.
And the choirs kept singing of Freedom.
The men in the forest they once asked of me,
How many black berries grew in the Blue Sea.
And I asked them right back with a tear in my eye.
How many dark ships in the forest?
The Sunday has come and the Sunday has gone.
And I can't do much more than to sing you a song.
I'll sing it so softly, it'll do no one wrong.
And the choirs keep singing of Freedom.


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