Angela Davis spoke last night in Oakland, California at an event organized by the Civil Rights and Restorative Justice Project that is part of the Northeastern University School of Law. That speech offered important reminders of what is at stake when we look back fifty years ago to September 15, 1963: the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama and the murder of Denise McNair, age 11, and Carole Robertson, Cynthia Wesley and Addie Mae Collins, all 14 years old.
I appreciated Davis’s focus on both historical context and contemporary ramifications when she reminds us that:
- racist terrorism has not ended and has fundamentally shaped the history of United States;
- Robert Chambliss, the man convicted of the church bombing, had terrorized and bombed so many black homes and gatherings for so many years that he was more affectionately known by whites as “Dynamite Bob” in Birmingham (also better known as Bombingham);
- the most salient sound of Angela Davis’s childhood in Birmingham was the sound of bombings, so much so that her neighborhood was called Dynamite Hill;
- less than two weeks before the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church, the lead civil rights attorney in Birmingham lost his home to a bombing;
- on the day of the 16th Street Church bombing, two other black youth were also killed by whites— Johnny Robinson and Virgil Ware;
- bombings in Birmingham continued well after the 16th Street Baptist Church was targeted and everyone knew who was responsible, including the FBI, which simply looked the other way;
- Chambliss was only charged with the possession of dynamite, not for actually bombing anything, and J. Edgar Hoover refused to release any information about the evidence gathered from the church bombing (so there was no trial);
- the Children’s Crusade was immediately activated in response to the church bombing where children as young as nine or ten years old were jailed and tortured for the future of racial equality and justice in the United States;
- Bull Connor, the commissioner of public safety in Birmingham, helped ensure that violence in Birmingham was the norm where he would routinely promise and deliver bloodshed against black citizens;
- Black people were forced to arm themselves in Birmingham for protection (guns were fired in the air but never shot) but those Black communities never retaliated by bombing white communities and today constitute perhaps our best model for what it means to respond peacefully, but defensively, in the face of extreme violence;
- Black people had, in fact, been arming themselves since the 1877 Compromise where President Hayes withdrew all federal troops from the south as part of his bid for presidency (the model mentioned in #10 has been in long effect) and have always known that they must fend for themselves by themselves.
Despite the facts of the eleven issues listed above, we have never acknowledged the terrorism that was the norm in places like Birmingham, Alabama. Racist violence has been part and parcel of our local and national governments. Davis reminds us that the murder of these 4 Little Girls is a complex history, one that is rarely acknowledged in our commemoration ceremonies, but one that is intimately connected to ongoing violence under our ongoing racism, sexism, homophobia, and xenophobia: from Trayvon Martin… to Oscar Grant… to the numerous stories of racist violence that I have told here about the universities where I have taught.
Davis’s speech affirmed the history and perspectives that I think are most valuable. How we tell the history of this moment can be as violent as the actual history if we do not grasp the full context of how and why Denise McNair, Carole Robertson, Cynthia Wesley and Addie Mae Collins were so brutally killed. The fact of the matter is that for many, many years, it was only black communities who actually remembered and cared about these 4 Little Girls’ names and legacy. How we remember and care about them today is no less critical. The privilege of who tells history and how it is told is most often decided within the terms of white property. But as people who as, Davis remind us, have always had to fend for ourselves, we should be able to remember and care about our own stories and children differently.