When Dr. King finished his famous "I Have a Dream" speech in 1963, Malcolm X ran into march organizer Bayard Rustin at the National Mall. Discussing King's remarks, Malcolm said to Rustin, "You know this dream of King's is going to be a nightmare before it's over." Just two weeks later, on September 15th, four terrorists from the Ku Klux Klan planted a bomb at the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama.
The church had become a common meeting place for King and other civil rights leaders when they planned actions in Birmingham. On that late Sunday morning, as mothers, fathers, sons and daughters walked into church, the dynamite exploded, killing four young girls (Addie Mae Collins, Cynthia Wesley, Carole Robertson and Denise McNair) and injuring at least another twenty. Activist and scholar Angela Davis, whose family had close ties to the young girls' families, recalled the horrific scene that greeted her mother when she arrived at the church: "limbs and heads strewn all over the place."
As the black community called for justice, an eyewitness identified the suspects. This led to one Klan member being charged with the bombing. However, a month later he was cleared of murder, and spent only six months in prison for possessing the dynamite. The other three who participated in the attack also escaped justice for most of their lives. One died in 1994 never being charged with any crime, and two others were convicted in 2000 and 2002. In short, it took nearly forty years to get justice for these four little girls.
Four years after the church bombing, Dr. King began to question the future of the black freedom struggle in America. King began asking what could truly be accomplished in a country filled with so much racism. He began moving towards Malcolm's train of thought echoing his earlier sentiments that his dream was now a nightmare.
For the last few weeks, many in the U.S, and indeed around the world have commemorated the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington with thousands marching on the Mall. Pundits, reporters, bloggers and others have discussed the historical significance of the March, with many concluding that while there is still a ways to go, much progress has been made. However, one must ask, how many of the same media outlets and ordinary citizens who so enthusiastically participated in commemorating the March, will be equally passionate about covering the anniversary of the church bombing?
Like so many others, I too attended the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington. And like so many others I too felt there was much to be proud of and hopeful for, including now having two young females inside the White House, roughly the same age as the four little girls who were murdered fifty years ago. Yet, seeing the images of Trayvon Martin all over the Mall while listening to Sabrina Fulton and Emmett Till's relatives implore us to act, I could not help but wonder if Malcolm and Martin were right.
It is now fifty years since those parents had to bury their little girls and their killers walked free. We find ourselves again asking why there is no justice for another innocent African-American child who was murdered because of racism and why non-white citizens are being profiled and caged in prison at such alarming rates.
When President Obama visited the Holocaust museum in 2012 he said, "Remembrance without resolve is a hollow gesture, and awareness without action changes nothing." So as we remember those four little girls and why their lives were cut short, we must realize that all of the marches and commemorations mean nothing if we don't wield our collective power and turn our sorrow, anger and passion into action and ensure that no more parents are burying their children, no more innocent youth are frisked and humiliated and no more unarmed children are murdered because we remain passive in the face of this insidious evil that still sickens our society that we call racism.
Vincent Intondi is an Associate Professor of History at Montgomery College and Director of Research for American University's Nuclear Studies Institute. His forthcoming book on Stanford University Press, Links in the Same Chain: Nuclear Weapons, Colonialism, and the Global African American Struggle for Freedom, examines the role of black antinuclear activists.