Their names were Denise, Carole, Cynthia and Addie Mae, and 45 years ago next month, on an overcast morning in Birmingham, Alabama, their lives were taken as they prepared for a Sunday school program. A dynamite bomb, planted by local thugs from the Ku Klux Klan, exploded outside the basement of the city's 16th Street Baptist Church, killing the girls instantly and tearing an irreparable hole in the American conscience.
"Life is hard," Dr. Martin Luther King said three days later at the funeral service for the girls, ages 11 to 14. "As hard as crucible steel."
In the aftermath of the tragedy, rioters in Birmingham set fire to the streets, and America hung her head. With the church blast came a reckoning, a sad and awful acknowledgment that, as a nation, we were no longer able to protect even our own children. Change had to come--and it did. Within ten months, President Johnson would sign into law the Civil Rights Act of 1964. For black Americans, more freedoms would follow.
As the father of two young girls, I cannot begin to imagine the searing pain felt by the parents of the slain children. For them, any sense of comfort--or justice--must have been as unfathomable as the idea that, one day, a black American might be given the opportunity to lead the nation.
When Barack Obama accepts his party's nomination for the presidency next week, a long and complicated chapter of our national story will draw to a close. The fires of Birmingham will have at last begun to dim.
Regardless of who prevails in November, the 2008 campaign will be remembered as a triumph of the unfathomable. That John McCain survived five-and-a-half years of imprisonment and torture in North Vietnam is miracle enough, let alone his distinguished ascendancy to the pinnacle of presidential politics.
And though Hillary Clinton fell short in her groundbreaking bid for the same prize, her near-victory belongs to women everywhere, past and present, who have boldly stared down the outrageous inequities of gender discrimination.
Yet Sen. Obama's achievement stands apart from the others for, if nothing else, the sheer breadth of its historic redress. For all their claims to liberty, our nation's founders, seeking political expedience, turned a blind eye to the abomination of slavery, embedding in our Constitution a fatal neglect. For the next two centuries, racial injustice would loom large as America's enduring hypocrisy, a shameful stain that permitted the cruelest of indignities to be visited upon black America--discrimination, marginalization, murder.
And so next Thursday's event is not only a celebration but an elegy, a sobering reminder that Sen. Obama's landmark accomplishment is hardly his alone. Like a football player crashing through the final crush of bodies and into the bright light of the end zone, the senator from Illinois is completing what has been a grueling downfield march, and the true glory of his moment can be found in the strides and sacrifices of those who came before him.
In the soaring oratory and bottomless optimism of Dr. King, whose dream of a distant mountaintop awakened millions to the righteousness of their fight.
In the proud defiance of Rosa Parks and the courageous 1961 Freedom Riders, whose heroic examples enlightened a new generation of Americans to the power of civil disobedience and the wisdom of community organization.
In the quiet thunder of stamping feet, as countless thousands of anonymous marchers streamed through cities like Selma and Montgomery, demanding not special treatment from their government, but simple human decency.
Yes, there is still work to be done. Last month, a New York Times/CBS News poll revealed that 55% of white Americans consider race relations in the U.S. "generally good," while 59% of blacks called them "generally bad," a stark testament to the scars of our long struggle.
And yet telephone pollsters do not interview children, and it is in these, our youngest citizens, that we find our greatest hope. Across the country, boys and girls of different color share classrooms, share friendships--share life--in ways that were inconceivable when I was a child. This, I believe, is our salvation. As abolitionist Frederick Douglass noted 150 years ago, "It is easier to build strong children than to repair broken men."
Their names were Denise, Carole, Cynthia and Addie Mae, and looking at them in old photographs I am left breathless by that unmistakable expression on their faces--the indiscriminate joy and boundless faith that are the hallmarks of children everywhere. It is a look I see on my own daughters' faces every day.
The four little girls from Birmingham were taken from us before they had a chance to witness a better America. But next week in Denver, their spirits will be very much alive.
[This essay appeared in USA Today on August 20, 2008.]