When I was growing up, my father often sat me on his knee and told me stories of the Civil Rights Movement. Being a man from the South, the movement was a cause that was near and dear to his heart. Any occasion was an opportunity to retell the stories of the movement. I heard the stories so often I felt as if I knew Medger Evers, Emmitt Till, Martin Luther King, Jr., Chaney, Goodman and Schwerner, Viola Liuzzo and countless others. But the one story that has stayed with me more than all the others was the story of 4 Little Girls from Birmingham Alabama who were killed in church while attending Sunday School.
I was heartbroken by the sadness in my father’s eyes each time he told me the story of Addie Mae, Cynthia, Carole and Denise. Addie Mae, Carole and Cynthia were 14 years old, Denise was 11. He told me the story of how on September 15, 1963 they left their homes that Sunday morning and went to the 16th Street Baptist Church to attend Sunday School. As they were in the basement bathroom preparing for the lesson to begin, some men threw bombs through a window. The bombs exploded and Addie Mae, Cynthia, Carole and Denise were killed. Addie Mae’s sister Sarah survived but was very badly injured. My father showed me images of the girls in Jet and Ebony magazines that he had saved. Of all the girls, I was drawn to Denise. I thought how she was no different than me. Smiling face with Shirley Temple curls and bangs, playing with her doll and dressed in her Sunday best with ankle socks and patent leather shoes. But she was innocent and she was gone because of hate and cowardice.
I realized at a young age There But For the Grace of God Go I. Decisions my parents made before I was born set my life on a different path. Had my parents stayed in the South, I could have ended up the same as Denise.
In the years since, I have often wondered what would have become of Denise. What would her life had been like had she been late for church that day? Would she would have become a journalist or a doctor or a lawyer or a preacher? Maybe, like her classmate Condolezza Rice, she would have become a diplomat or politician. Maybe she would have married and been Mom and Grandma. Her loss is the world’s loss.
Almost a year after the girls deaths, the United States passed the Civil Right Act of 1964, which outlawed discrimination and segregation on the basis of color, religion and gender. The Act abolished the rule of Jim Crow in the South.
50 years later, we don’t think much about the sacrifices of Addie Mae, Cynthia, Carole, Denise, Medger, Martin, Viola, Emmitt, James, Andrew, Michael and many whose names are known only to their families and God. We no longer celebrate Black History and most of our young people don’t know of the bravery and sacrifice these people made for us. I always hope that Denise and her friends, Addie Mae, Cynthia and Carole are not disappointed in the direction we have taken. They sacrificed the most for the salvation of us all.
I hope they still see hope in all of us.