THE BLOG

Remembering Four Little Girls

05/28/2013 11:44 am ET | Updated Jul 28, 2013

With so many news stories competing for our attention: Congressional investigation of the IRS, the bloody attack of a British soldier by alleged Islamist militants in London, President Obama's redefinition of our "War on Terrorism," the penalty phase of the Jody Arias trial, the debate about a pending proposed Immigration Bill, the resurgence of Wall Street's power of money to eviscerate the regulatory reach of the Dodd-Frank, college commencement speeches by public figures offering advice to newly minted graduates, the collapse of a bridge in Washington state, the community controversy ignited by the effort in Chicago to close more than 50 underperforming public schools, Friday's award by President Obama of the Congressional Medal of Honor to four black girls killed in a Sunday dynamite bombing of their church more than 50 years ago may not have been noticed.

The bombing occurred in Birmingham, Ala., on September 15, 1963, 18 days following the assembly of more than 250,000 people, 20 percent or more whom were white, at the foot of the Lincoln Memorial, at the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom on August 28, 1963. It was there that Dr. King delivered his celebrated "I Have a Dream" speech. Those of us closely associated with Dr. King at the time believed that the church bombing was the Ku Klux Klan's "answer" to our "March on Washington."

The four girls were 14-year-olds Addie Mae Collins, Carole Robertson and Cynthia Wesley and 11-year-old Denise McNair. They were killed while attending Sunday School at their 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham. It was subsequently revealed that bombing was indeed carried out by two local members of the Ku Klux Klan.

In a signing ceremony at the White House, in awarding the Medals, President Obama said of the tragic death of the four young girls "that heartbreak helped to trigger triumph, and a more just and equal and fair America."

The killing of the four girls, like the earlier June 12, 1963 murder of Medgar Evers in the driveway at his home in Jackson, Miss., and the high pressure hoses and police dogs used against young black boys and girls demonstrating to end racial segregation in Birmingham, in April of 1963, shocked the conscience of our nation. Like the recent killings at the Sandy Hook elementary school in Newtown, CT, these incidents raised the question, "Just what kind of nation are we -- aren't we better than this?"

Non-partisan organizations like EVOLVE and its effort to encourage the responsible and smart ownership and use of guns are seeking to answer this question.

President Obama at the Congressional Medal of Honor award ceremony also said, "To the families that are here, those who lost daughters, sisters, we just want to express incredible thanks not only for the strength you showed in suffering, but also for your persistence in making sure that we remember those sacrifices."

I attended the funeral services for Addie Mae Collins, Carole Robertson, Denise McNair and Cynthia Wesley. Dr. King spoke at their funeral. It was one of those unusual moments when, in public, I saw tears rolling down his face as he spoke. Among other things he said:

These children -- unoffending, innocent, and beautiful -- were the victims of one of the most vicious and tragic crimes ever perpetrated against humanity. And yet they died nobly.

They are the martyred heroines of a holy crusade for freedom and human dignity. And so this afternoon in a real sense they 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 [Audience:] (Yeah) who has fed his constituents with the stale bread of hatred and the spoiled meat of racism. They have something to say to a federal government that has compromised with the undemocratic practices of southern Dixiecrats (Yeah) and the blatant hypocrisy of right-wing northern Republicans. (Speak) They have something to say to every Negro (Yeah) who has passively accepted the evil system of segregation and who has stood on the sidelines in a mighty struggle for justice.

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. Their death says to us that we must work passionately and unrelentingly for the realization of the American dream.

This August 28, 2013 will be the 50th Anniversary of Dr. King's delivery of his "I Have A Dream" speech. As we approach the 50th Anniversary of his "Dream", I hope we will reflect and consider the wisdom of Dr. King's words at the funeral of those four young girls.

Martin Luther King, Jr was our nation's 20th century preeminent apostle of non-violence. His moral voice for social, racial and political justice endures.

Those young black girls who were murdered by the Klan almost 50 years ago were casualties, killed in during the struggle by Dr. King to non-violently lead America on a moral journey to overcome its addiction to racial segregation, and reclaim and redeem its soul. While we have not yet arrived at that "shining City on a Hill" in a post-racial America, the Birmingham of today is a tribute to the memory of those four young girls.

Three weeks ago, the previously all white segregationist Birmingham Bar Association together with the "Magic City" lawyers organization (previously an all "negro" Bar association) together celebrated the 50 years of racial progress in Birmingham. I was the invited keynote speaker at their gala black tie dinner. There were unavoidable tears from the audience and guests as we watched video footage of the Birmingham of 50 years ago.

With the naming, also years ago, of the local airport after the Reverend Fred Shuttelworth along with the election of black mayors since April 1963, it's an understatement, paraphrasing an old cigarette television commercial, to say that Birmingham "has come along way, baby"!

For those who read this blog and may not know or have heard of Reverend Fred Shuttlesoworth, he was spark that ignited the engine of racial change and an end to segregation in Birmingham. While Dr. King may have been more well known, it was not him, but Reverend Fred Shuttlesworth who was principally responsible for the political and positive racial transformation of Birmingham to the city it is today.

As I watched the news footage of the Congressional Medal of Honor being awarded to the deceased young girls, I couldn't help but tear up, for a moment, as I watched America's first African-American president of the United States sign his name next to theirs.