On the morning of Sept. 15, 1963, four little girls were getting ready for Sunday school in the basement of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Montgomery, Ala., when a bomb hidden under the outside stairwell exploded, killing the girls as it blew the room to splinters.
A clear act of racial hatred cut short the lives of Addie Mae Collins, Denise McNair, Carole Robertson and Cynthia Wesley. The girls were African American, worshipping in a church that was a key civil rights meeting place and a frequent target of bomb threats.
Fourteen years passed before authorities were able to bring the Ku Klux Klansman who’d placed the bomb there, “Dynamite” Bob Chambliss, to justice. Chambliss’ two accomplices were let off because the prosecutor determined the evidence against them was weaker.
Spike Lee’s excellent documentary “Four Little Girls” details what happened on that morning and the devastation it wrought on the families who’d lost their children and beyond to the broader community.
It was no coincidence that the bombing occurred four months after Montgomery’s infamous police commissioner, Bull Connor, set police dogs on school children as they marched for civil rights, and sprayed them with firehoses capable of emitting streams of water under such pressure they could blast the bark off trees. It was also about a month after Dr. Martin Luther King gave his famous “I have a dream” speech in Washington, D.C.
I think every American should watch “Four Little Girls.”
Well, you may say, that was 60 years ago; we as a nation have come so far. To which I would respond, fair enough, yes, we have.
Then I consider the growing number of monuments star-scattered over the American landscape today, bearing the names of human beings murdered by other human beings, sometimes in great numbers, sometimes in small, because of the color of their skin, because of their religious or political beliefs, because of their heritage, and often for motives that perish with the perpetrator.
And when I consider the synagogues, churches, schools, the hotel from which a man fired shots into a crowd gathered to hear a musical performance, the ordinary places that have earned capitalization in our collective memory at such a terrible price, I wonder if we as a nation have moved an inch. The hatred is still with us.
I have always believed that bigotry and hatred are tumors on the soul that need to be cut away. We should not marinate in them.
I believe in a moral law. Indeed, we may be at a moment when the old Greek phrase “Know Thyself,” once written above the ancient temple at Delphi, becomes not merely something to memorize for a history class soon forgotten, but a moral imperative.
As human beings, we can decide, we can make choices to be better. Or we can continue to rage at others’ happiness and gloat at their misery.
I heard a Ku Klux Klansman once declare that Black people had no right to breathe the air or live. If that man had his way, he said, all Black people would be dead. I thought, “Buddy, if anybody is inherently superior to anybody else, you ain’t it.”
How does one get to that stage? How is it that members of the Christian Identity movement can hold onto their beliefs over a lifetime? The belief that Adam and Eve were white? The belief that all people who are not white were created on the 6th day of creation with the animals and therefore have no soul? And that Eve had sex with the Devil in his guise as a serpent in the Garden of Eden, and Jews were the offspring of that union?
It baffles me.
People like that are not merely ignorant of the world we live in — ignorance merely means not knowing and can be corrected — but willfully, maliciously ignorant. The mental machinery required to look and fail to notice that regardless of skin color, ethnicity, etc., intelligence and dignity are not the properties of any one race must be formidable.
We may never prod the professional haters, or those who thrive on victim energy, to take that long, sobering, look into their hearts and motives, but it is worth the effort.
When I see a man or woman or child, I don’t see color or ethnicity. I see heads full of dreams and plans. Just like mine. Why should we treat their dreams as less worthy because the dreamer is not white?
Hatred and bigotry have blasted many more than Addie Mae Collins, Denise McNair, Carole Robertson and Cynthia Wesley from the world. Whatever promise that was in them vanished when the light in their eyes went out.
Robert Whale can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.