Remembering Four Little Girls: Hope and Responsibility

10:22 a.m. this Sunday will mark fifty years since Addie Mae Collins (14), Carol Denise McNair (11), Carole Robertson (14), and Cynthia Diane Wesley (14) were murdered at Birmingham Alabama’s Sixteenth Street Baptist Church.  While members of the Ku Klux Klan were directly responsible for their deaths, these four—enshrined in African memory as the “Four Little Girls”—are, with Emmitt Till, Latasha Harlins, Ahmadu Diallo, and most recently Trayvon Martin and Jordan Davis, among the more recent victims of state-sanctioned violence against African youth in this country.  Few outside Birmingham know that, on that same day, James Robinson (16) and Virgil Ware (13), two Black boys, were killed by Birmingham police who declared martial law in the wake of the Sixteenth Street murders.  The girls became, in the words of Martin King at the funeral service for three of the four, “the martyred heroines of a holy crusade for freedom and human dignity.”

The triumph of life over death has become a central theme of the modern global African experience, frequently symbolized by the frozen entelechy of Black youth martyrs.  The survival and resistance of Africans cast adrift in the Western Hemisphere takes on added potency when it is remembered that as many as a quarter of those taken during enslavement were children.  The separation of children from parents became a metaphor for the assault on Black families during the domestic trade in Black bodies.  In the 20th century, violence against Black youth, more so than assaults on Black adults, prompted insurrections and violent reprisals, from Tulsa and Chicago to the Watts section of Los Angeles and HBCUs in Jackson, Mississippi and Orangeburg, South Carolina.  The murder of 13-year-old Hector Pieterson in 1976 by South African police galvanized the youth of Soweto and accelerated the destruction of apartheid in South Africa.

Two years ago, a group of Howard students stood outside the Hector Pieterson Museum in Soweto, talking with his sister, Antoinette Sithole. Ms. Sithole is a guide at the museum, which we have visited a number of times as part of the summer study abroad class I've co-taught over the last decade. Reflecting on how these students drew connections between African youth and elders on two continents reminds me of the motivating power of community and the responsibility we owe each other to advance it, especially in the face of trauma.

The irrepressible hope and defiance contained in the eyes of Black youth has remained a motivating force behind our resistance and determination to choose life over death.  Young people entering normal schools and HBCUs in the Reconstruction and Jim Crow-era U.S. South.  Young people, in Sunday clothes, standing firm before Bull Connor’s German shepherds and fire hoses in Kelly Ingram Park, across the street from Sixteenth Street Baptist Church. Youth who, as SNCC mentor Ella Jo Baker observed, often “have the courage where we fail.”

What is the responsibility of our parents, elders, and academics to young people engaged in the struggle for education? How do we, through our teaching, scholarship, and advising, model and convey lives and life-giving information and tools to students who have chosen this institution and ones like it for exactly that reason?  The frequently impossible and desperate choices many young people make in the face of a transformed political economy should make this question the baseline for our intellectual work. 

In his Birmingham eulogy, Dr. King drew a distinction between individual murderers and “the system, the way of life, the philosophy that produced the murders.”  This is a critical distinction that we must continue to draw.  The physical, intellectual, spiritual, and emotional killing of our people—from crime, economic inequality, educational apartheid, or cultural strangulation—are the direct consequence of a system, a way of life, and a philosophy that has produced a toxic objectification of African humanity.

Howard’s Alabama Club observed the fiftieth anniversary of the Birmingham “Children’s Crusade” on March 22nd in Cramton Auditorium.  Drs. Yvette Richardson and Jonathan McPherson from Miles College and Ms. Janice Kelsey, who participated in the famous “Children’s March,” recounted that it was young people who had formed the vanguard of the Birmingham movement.  They joined with Howard students to renew a pact to remember both the beauty of our history and the sacrifices that give that history meaning.

Predictably, the violence against our children continues, and regrettably, instances of violence are explained away, responsibility displaced.  Attempting to deflect conversations on state-sanctioned violence to discussions of Black-on-Black crime ignores the distinction between individuals and systems drawn by Dr. King in his Birmingham eulogy.

This Sunday at the Kennedy Center at 6 p.m., actors from Howard’s Department of Theater Arts will lend their talents to a staged reading of “Four Little Girls,” a play directed by Howard Alumna Phylicia Rashad.  This play, and the ritual of remembrance it observes, allows us occasion to recommit and to resolve to continue to choose life over death.

Hilltop coverage of the Alabama Club’s 50th Anniversary of the Children’s March:

Information on Sunday’s staged reading of “Four Little Girls” at the Kennedy Center: