Carol Denise McNair

September 15, 1963

They have names. They were attending church that Sunday.

One of the girls was Carol Denise McNair (pictured here). She was born in Birmingham, Alabama in 1951. She was 11-years-old when she and four other young girls went into the basement of the 16th Street Baptist Church on September 15, 1963 to prepare for a sermon, entitled “The Love That Forgives.” Denise McNair and the three other girls, Addie Mae Collins, Carole Robertson and Cynthia Wesley would die in the church after a bomb planted by the KKK exploded in the church.

The sole survivor of that group was Sarah Collins Rudolph, then 12, the sister of Addie Mae Collins. She remembers, “Denise walked over to Addie and said, ‘Addie, would you tie my sash?’. We all was sitting there watching her [get ready to] tie her sash and all of a sudden I heard this sound. Boom!”

Her sister, Addie Mae Collins, 14, and friends, Denise McNair, 11, Carole Rosamond Roberts, 14, and Cynthia Wesley, 14, all had lost their lives in the bombing. Collins Rudolph later was rescued from the rubbish of the bombing with the loss of sight in her left eye.

“Tomorrow marks 56 years since the murder of four young girls at the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama,” according to the Southern Poverty Law Center.

“During his eulogy for McNair, Robertson, Wesley and Collins, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. called the attack ‘one of the most vicious and tragic crimes ever perpetuated against humanity,’ according to the Southern Poverty Law Center.

Some white political leaders before the bombing had encouraged violent acts toward African Americans.

Dr. King had sent a telegram to then-Alabama Gov. George Wallace, telling the state’s top segregationist: “The blood of our little children is on your hands.” Ten days before the bombing, Wallace had railed against the civil rights movement to The New York Times, saying, “What this country needs is a few first-class funerals.”

President John F. Kennedy would say, “If these cruel and tragic events can only awaken that city and state – if they can only awaken this entire nation to a realization of the folly of racial injustice and hatred and violence, then it is not too late for all concerned to unite in steps toward peaceful progress before more lives are lost.”

The perpetrators of the bombing at the time received a $100 fine and a suspended 180-day jail sentence.

Charles Morgan, Jr., a young, white Alabama lawyer, would deliver a passionate and powerful speech, asking, “Who did it? Who threw that bomb?” and answer “We all did it . . . Every last one of us is condemned for that crime and the bombing before it and a decade ago. We all did it.

“The ‘who’ is every little individual who talks about the ‘nig**rs’ and spreads the seeds of his hate to his neighbor and his son. The jokester, the crude oaf whose racial jokes rock the party with laughter. The ‘who’ is every governor who ever shouted for lawlessness and became a law violator. It is every senator and every representative who in the halls of Congress stands and with mock humility tells the world that things back home aren’t really like they are. It is courts that move ever so slowly, and newspapers that timorously defend the law.”

Dr. King would say, “[T]his afternoon, in a real sense [the four girls] have something to say to each of us in their death. They have something to say to every minister of the gospel who has remained silent behind the safe security of stained-glass windows.

“They have something to say to every politician who has fed his constituents with the stale bread of hatred and the spoiled meat of racism. … They say to each of us, black and white alike, that we must substitute courage for caution. They say to us that we must be concerned not merely about who murdered them, but about the system, the way of life, the philosophy which produced the murderers.”

In a story by the Washington Post, Denise McNair’s parents shared that Denise had “a comfortable, enriching life, with a piano and dance lessons.”

Addie liked to play hopscotch and was often the peacemaker for arguments among her seven brothers and sisters. Cynthia did really well in reading and math, was constantly laughing and “just full of fun all the time.” Carole was involved in Jack and Jill of America, the Girl Scouts, the marching band, the choir and the science club.

If Denise had lived, her sisters say, she “would have been awesome.” Before the bombing, Denise had organized fundraisers to fight muscular dystrophy and would get the other neighborhood children together to read poetry.

Her sister said she remembers stories of Denise standing up for others, and says, she would have been “a doctor or lawyer or politician.”

Denise, however, did not understand the hate she would sometimes face. Her parents tried to teach her that not all whites were racist but could not spare their child the indignities of Jim Crow segregation. “Denise cried . . . when Mr. McNair took her to a five-and-dime store and was forced to explain why she could not sit at the counter for a hot dog,” according to the Washington Post. “Remember, baby, what we told you about those few mean white people?” her father told her. “Well, those few people don’t want you to buy a hot dog in a five-and-ten-cent store in Birmingham, Alabama.”

For months after his daughter’s death, her father said, he did not cry. “I was angry,” he later told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “But I had a sense of balance. People were asking me, ‘Why don’t you leave?’ I said, ‘Where else can I go and not still be black in the United States?’ My intent was to try to make this a better section of the world.”

Rudolph, who has been speaking out, said recently about the bombing she survived, “We shouldn’t think of doing people like that. You don’t know them, and you want to do harm to them? It’s time for this whole nation to really love each other and stop all the killing.”

Rudolph said the biggest lesson she learned from her traumatic experience was to love.

“That was the name of the sermon,” she said. “That’s what they were talking about that Sunday,” she said in an article from The Press of Atlantic City, June 2019.

Today, a memorial named “Four Spirits” stands across the street from the church with the inscription “A love that forgives” – the title of the pastor’s undelivered sermon on Sept. 15, 1963.

Langston Hughes would also write:

“Four little girls
Who went to Sunday School that day
And never came back home at all–
But left instead
Their blood upon the wall…

…Might be awakened someday soon
By songs upon the breeze
As yet unfelt among
Magnolia trees.”

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