BIRMINGHAM, Ala. — The city of Birmingham is planning five days of events with political leaders, artists and ordinary citizens to observe the 50th anniversary of a church bombing that killed four black girls and shocked the nation in 1963.
Attorney General Eric Holder, former Secretary of State and Birmingham native Condoleezza Rice, director Spike Lee and actor Jamie Foxx are among those participating in what’s being called Empowerment Week in the city.
Events began Wednesday and continue through Sunday, the anniversary of the bombing of Birmingham’s 16th Street Baptist Church on Sept. 15, 1963.
A powerful dynamite bomb planted outside the building detonated on a Sunday morning, shattering a brick and stone wall and raining debris onto the girls, who died as they were chatting in a washroom. The sister of one of the four victims survived but was critically injured.
The bombing, which occurred after the landmark March on Washington and as the city’s public schools were being racially integrated for the first time, came to symbolize the depth of racial hatred in the South and was credited with helping spur passage of civil rights laws.
Blacks now control Birmingham City Hall, and the city has a civil rights museum that includes a display about the bombing and its victims – Denise McNair, 11, and 14-year-olds Carole Robertson, Addie Mae Collins and Cynthia Wesley, who also was known as Cynthia Morris.
Mayor William Bell called the day of the bombing “a date that will live in infamy for as long as people study American history.”
The carnage of that Sunday didn’t end with the bombing: Two black teenagers were shot dead within hours in the chaos that followed, one by a police officer.
Three Ku Klux Klansmen were convicted in the bombing years later. Two died in custody, and one remains behind bars.
“People were stirred by what happened here and change began to finally come,” Bell said in a statement. “We are not the same Birmingham of 1963, and will continue to make sure that Birmingham is 50 years forward.”
Holder and Rice will speak at a forum on the bombing on the anniversary day, while Lee will present his 1997 documentary about the bombing, 4 Little Girls, at the Alabama Theatre. Admission is free.
Foxx is performing at a concert that will include singers Jill Scott and Charlie Wilson, and a sculpture commemorating the slain girls will be unveiled in a park near the church on the eve of the anniversary.
Two Birmingham-area churches, mostly black Greater Shiloh Missionary Baptist and mostly white Edgewood Presbyterian, are encouraging churches nationwide to teach a lesson on forgiveness and love on the anniversary of the bombing. The Sunday school lesson the morning of the bombing was The Love That Forgives.
Congregations nationwide also are being asked to ring their bells on Sept. 15 at 10:22 a.m. CDT, the approximate time the bomb detonated. The actual bell from 16th Street Baptist Church was rung on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial during the recent commemoration of the March on Washington.