Remembering Four Little Girls and the Women Who Paid it All

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50 years ago today a single moment changed a nation. When explosives detonated in the basement of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama just before morning worship services, it not only took the lives of four little girls, but shattered the hearts of those who knew them as well as those who hoped to soon see the Untied States wash away the stain of racial hatred.

Only weeks before the church bombing, hundreds of thousands convened in the nation's capitol for the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. The march produced an iconic speech and moving images, but above all it revealed the overwhelming policy and organizing work that the country yet needed to complete in order to achieve racial equality.

If the March seeded in the national imagination a Dream for the future of a nation mired in conflict, the deadly explosion in Alabama shook the US back to reality.

The Four Little Girls have become symbols of the unfathomable hate harnessed in the being of Northern and Southern bigots. Documentaries, books, and countless articles elevate their legacies as martyrs of the movement. However, on this day it is equally important to remember Carole, Addie Mae, Cynthia and Denise as more than icons but as four daughters, sisters, and friends on the brink of young adulthood who had their futures stolen.

These girls were not alone. We remember their names because of shocking optics of evil emblazoned in our minds. The images oft printed in history books of a small, country church with windows shattered and bricks dislodged will not let us forget. But for every name we know, there are hundreds we do not. While I pray for these four girls, I think of the countless women raped, stalked, intimidated, murdered and, yes, lynched whose memories are preserved only by their closest loved ones.

The story of the Civil Rights Movement, too often painted with an emphasis on male leadership and sacrifice, is not complete without their voices. The 16th Street Church bombing reminds us that just as the men endured, the women did as well. White supremacists shielded neither Black women nor girls in their quest for racial dominance. We fought together. We died together.

As a member of a generation often written off as apathetic and unmotivated, I intend to use this day as an only a reminder of ongoing injustice but as inspiration to keep fighting for change. Each day when I wake up, the anger washes over me. I then take a few moments to remember the toils of those who came before and my relative privilege, but I am certainly not content.

Similar challenges face Black America now as they did 50 years ago. Those who pay attention will find a disconcerting irony in the Congress that, this week, formally recognized the deaths of the girls but continues to refuse to advance legislation that would eliminate disparities and opportunities and outcomes for African Americans. While the people in charge give lip service to preserving the sanctity of the Civil Rights Movement, they chip away at its gains. I choose to honor the lives of Addie Mae Collins, Carole Robertson, Cynthia Wesley, and Denise McNair by remaining angry and staying focused.

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Kimberly Foster is the founder and editor of For Harriet. Email or

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