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DC Students Pay Tribute to 1963 Birmingham Church Bombing

  • Chris Simkins

Fifty years ago, the racially motivated bombing of an African American church in Birmingham, Alabama killed four little girls. The attack became a milestone in the American civil rights movement and galvanized support for the equal rights campaign.

At The Duke Ellington School of the Arts in Washington, students pay tribute to Addie Mae Collins, Denise McNair, Carole Robertson and Cynthia Wesley, who were attending Sunday school at the 16th Street Baptist Church and died in the September 15, 1963 blast.

Cast members said the choral performance tells the stories of the young victims and remembering this pivotal moment in the civil rights movement can bring greater understanding and awareness of the sacrifices so many made for equal rights.

"I learned of the dreams that these girls had,” said Jayme Lawson, a cast member of the school’s production. “They were each individually their own person, and they wanted to do different things. They had aspirations."

The church was a gathering place for civil rights organizers. White supremacists determined to slow the movement carried out the bombing. The tragedy emotionally shattered the Rev. Martin Luther King.

Birmingham civil rights activist Jeff Drew, King's nephew, was also distraught. Carole Robertson and Cynthia Wesley were his friends.

"These little girls, my classmates, my friends whom I had grown up with, their lives were just snuffed away because somebody hated the color of their skin,” said Drew. “How stupid!"

The attack occurred just weeks after the huge March on Washington and King's "I Have a Dream" speech. The bombing shook the nation.

"It was one of the most saddest days that I can remember in my life," said Shirley Gavin Floyd who lost her classmate Addie Mae Collins. "Kids in the auditorium just started crying, and it was just a sad day. And for a whole week, everywhere you went people were crying."

Five decades later, President Barack Obama signed legislation posthumously awarding the Congressional Gold Medal to the young victims.

Pieces of stained glass from the church were donated to the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History by the children of a white Baptist minister, Norman Jimerson, who gathered up ruins from the church as evidence. He was criticized by white colleagues for attending the funerals of the victims.

"By keeping the glass and having that within his own possession for many years was part of a reconciliation process, hoping that this symbol of violence and conflict could also be a part of the healing process for people of both races," said Jimerson’s son Randall.