Denise McNair, Cynthia Diane Wesley, Addie Mae Collins and Carole Robertson: four little girls killed in Birmingham at the height of the civil rights movement. In addition to the slain girls, whom Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., called martyrs, nearly two dozen people were injured by the bomb blast which blew a hole in the 16th Street Baptist church, shattering stained glass windows, sending deadly debris flying aimlessly. It was a turning point in the movement for freedom and equality.
Less than three weeks after the March on Washington, a strong statement of opposition to the movement for equality was symbolically cast. The church had long been a fixture for local organizing against segregation and Jim Crow. The bombing was undoubtedly an attempt to silence a community. It backfired, sparking national outcry and pleas for justice. It was an unsolicited opportunity for the rest of the country to bear witness to the destructive effects of raw, unmitigated hate. America appeared to collectively grieve for the young black victims and their heartbroken families.
More than five decades have passed since that horrific attack, which some have considered domestic terrorism, yet the murder of the little black girls is seared into our collective conscious. As one of our darkest moments of the civil rights movement, we reflect on the loss of life and ask: Did these children die in vain? While the nation has made remarkable progress, have we escaped the darkest hours of the struggle for equality and civil rights? At times, I'm not so sure.
After the bombing, the civil rights movement did not rest and progress came, after the assassination of President Kennedy, with the adoption of a series of federal civil rights statutes that outlawed various forms of discrimination. The four girls, and others who gave their lives, were a constant reminder of the cost of freedom.
Today, we must still remember the four little girls as we continue our fight. Dark days are still here. While we had significant victories, some are slipping while others are still elusive. The undervaluing of black lives and race-based hate crimes remain a critical issue. How can a people be truly free if they are dehumanized, and even killed, because of their race, and often without consequence?
Just as the four girls in Birmingham died with impunity on that September day in 1963 -- prosecutions for the killings didn't occur until the 1970s -- today we find young people of color, especially young black men, in a similar situation of precariousness. From Trayvon Martin to Jordan Davis, killed after a white man riddled the car he was sitting in with bullets allegedly because his music was too loud, recent killings have shown a continuing pattern of seeming disregard for lives of people of color.
In March of this year, 16-year-old unarmed Kimani Gray was shot seven times, including three times in his back by New York City police as he left his friend's birthday party. An unarmed 19-year-old college student Kendrec McDade was shot and killed by officers in March 2012 in Pasadena, California. In Las Vegas, 28-year-old Orlando Barlow was surrendering on his knees when officers fatally shot him in 2003. And four years ago, 22-year-old Oscar Grant was killed by Oakland transit police, who said they accidentally used a gun instead of a taser. All of these young men were unarmed, and in almost all of the cases the killers were exonerated and returned to the beat.
The failures to charge and prosecute and all the "not guilty" verdicts reinforce the old cliché 'the more things change, the more they stay the same'.
So while we remember the victims of the 16th Street Church Bombing, we also remember the countless other innocent black men and women, people of color and LGBTQ people killed without consequence.
The continued need to end the dehumanization of people of color also plays out in the treatment of immigrants in this country. State laws that push people into the shadows of society because of immigration status and criminalize families and tear them apart, fail to recognize their humanity.
We cannot reflect on the Birmingham church bombing as an isolated period in our nation's sometimes ugly past. The type of hatred and racism that permitted someone to plant a deadly bomb at a place of worship persists today. Our work is not done.
Until children of color -- particularly black males -- are held in higher esteem, we remember, but cannot rest on the laurels of civil rights victories of earlier eras.
For our part, Advancement Project will not let Denise, Cynthia, Addie and Carole die in vain. We will continue to work to create the Beloved Community. By ending criminalization of young people of color in schools and on the streets with groups like Padres y Jovenes Unidos in Denver and Dream Defenders in Florida, our efforts help to improve life outcomes for young people. But as we push forward on this front, we must also prevent backsliding. Supporting today's movements like Forward Together in North Carolina, to clear barriers to the ballot box so all people can freely participate in our nation's democracy, we hope to build power to uproot policies that stunt our progress. In the words of Ella's Song:
"We who believe in freedom cannot rest,
We who believe in freedom cannot rest until it comes,
Until the killing of black men, black mothers' sons
Is as important as the killing of white men, white mothers' sons."