Mid-September holds a lot of tragedies. We have past the anniversary of the terrorist attacks of September 11, but in our zeal to remember that one, we may have forgotten the anniversary of another. Perhaps it is simply where I grew up, but the events affected the nation and should be remembered, for they still speak of a deep flaw in the American soul.
On Sunday, September 15, 1963, four (possibly five) members of the Ku Klux Klan planted at least 15 sticks of dynamite under the stairs of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama. At 10:22 a.m., an anonymous phone call was received by a 14-year-old girl named Carolyn Maull, the Sunday school secretary. The voice said two words: “three minutes.” The voice lied.
One minute later, an explosion that would leave a 7-foot-wide hole ripped through the building. In the basement, five little girls were changing into choir robes in preparation of the service. Addie Mae Collins (age 14, born April 18, 1949), Carol Denise McNair (age 11, born November 17, 1951), Carole Rosamond Robertson (age 14, born April 24, 1949), and Cynthia Dionne Wesley (age 14, born April 30, 1949) were killed. The violence to their bodies was so great that they could only be identified by articles of clothing. An additional score of people were injured, including Addie Mae’s younger sister Sarah, 12 years old at the time. She was cut with dozens of shards of glass in her face and lost one eye.
While national outrage ensued, it took until 2001 for all the evidence to come out. Some of it was suppressed on orders from FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover himself; other pieces had simply been inadmissible in court in in the 1950s. The evidence against the fifth possible conspirator was dismissed and he was never tried, but FBI records give a strong indication that he was involved in the bombing in a material capacity, if not in the act itself.
If you want to know who these men were, look it up. Let the names of the victims be remembered and the criminals’ identities be obliterated from history.
Before we cluck out tongues and shake our heads and lament the violent Civil Rights Era in the poor benighted South of the time, we need to face some facts. Little has changed. According to Uniform Crime Reporting on the FBI’s website: “In 2019, 15,588 law enforcement agencies participated in the Hate Crime Statistics Program. Of these agencies, 2,172 reported 7,314 hate crime incidents involving 8,559 offenses.”
Further: “5,512 victims of hate crimes were victims of crimes against persons. Regarding these victims and the crimes committed against them:
40.0 percent of the victims were intimidated.
36.7 percent were victims of simple assault.
21.0 percent were victims of aggravated assault.
0.9 percent (51) were murdered.
0.5 percent (30) were victims of rape.
0.1 percent (3) were victims of human trafficking, commercial sex acts.
0.7 percent (41) were victims of other types of offenses, which are collected only in the National Incident-Based Reporting System (NIBRS).
In 2019, 3,064 victims of hate crimes were victims of crimes against property. Of these:
75.6 percent were victims of destruction/damage/vandalism.
9.7 percent were victims of larceny-theft.
4.9 percent were victims of robbery.
4.2 percent were victims of burglary.
2.5 percent were victims of arson.
0.6 percent (19 individuals) were victims of motor vehicle theft.
2.5 percent were victims of other types of hate crime offenses, which are collected only in NIBRS.
It still goes on. It was never just four little girls. (Girls, by the way, who were about the same age as my mother, who was also at church that morning only 8 miles away.) There are, every year, dozens of people who are killed because of the deep racial and cultural divide in this country.
I hesitate to calculate how many have died in the 58 years for the same reasons, at the hands of similar men. Men who said they were defending their culture, their way of life. Who, no doubt, went to their own churches that night. Maybe were asked to pray. Maybe sang in the choir. Who got away with it for decades. The fact that they did it is on them. That they got away with it for so long, and that so many others continue to not face the consequences of their hatred, is on us.