A visitor views the Say Their Names memorial exhibit at Martin Luther King Jr. Promenade on July 20, 2021 in San Diego, Calif. The traveling memorial is sponsored by the San Diego African American Museum of Fine Art (SDAAMFA) and features photographs of 200 Black Americans who lost their lives due to systemic racism and racial injustice. 11-year-old Denise McNair (PICTURED AT LEFT) was one of four Black girls killed in the KKK bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in 1963 in Birmingham. (Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images)
By Michael Coard
I’m sure some readers will be alarmed by my use of the word “avenge” in regard to the Sept. 15, 1963, savage murder of four little Black girls. Those readers believe I’m calling for the same thing to be done to four little white girls in retaliation.
But I’m not.
As a college graduate with a degree in English and as an attorney, I understand that words matter. Therefore, I make it my business to use them properly and precisely. Accordingly, when I write “Never forget, always avenge,” I mean exactly that.
When I write or say “avenge,” I do not mean vengeance. There is a distinct difference between “revenge” and “avenge.” “Revenge,” which is counterproductive, means “the infliction of punishment as an act of retaliation,” while “avenge” means “the vindication — i.e., the upholding — of a cause by evidence.”
My cause, in regard to those four little Black girls — as well as a fifth one who was severely wounded and partially blinded — is to “never forget and always avenge.” And I do that by presenting the evidence, condemning the individual perpetrators along with their many enablers, seeking reparational justice for the victims and their families, and establishing a defense to protect against the repeat of such a historically heinous act.
Here’s the background of what the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. properly and precisely described as “one of the most vicious and tragic crimes ever perpetrated against humanity” and what President John F. Kennedy properly and precisely described as “cruel and tragic.”
At 10:24 a.m. on that tragic date 58 years ago, four sweet, innocent and defenseless little Black girls were murdered by white domestic terrorists.
While in Sunday School with many other Black children at Birmingham, Alabama’s 16th Street Baptist Church, those four — namely 11-year-old Denise McNair along with Addie Mae Collins, Carol Robertson and Cynthia Wesley, all 14 — were in the basement dressing room preparing for the 11 a.m. sermon entitled “A Love That Forgives.”
During the children’s preparation, at least 15 sticks of dynamite attached to a timing device detonated under the church steps near the basement. That powerful explosion not only killed the four but also seriously injured more than 20 others, including Addie Mae’s 12-year-old sister Sarah, who lost an eye when 21 glass shards were embedded into her pretty little brown face.
As stated by one survivor, the bomb’s effect shook the entire building and threw the girls’ bodies through the air “like rag dolls.” In fact, the bomb was so powerful that it crushed two nearby cars and blew out building windows blocks away.
Despite international outrage in reaction to this hellishly evil public act, one of the four responsible KKK domestic terrorists, namely Herman Cash, died of natural causes 31 years later in 1994 without ever being charged.
And of the other three murderous conspirators, criminal charges weren’t filed against one, namely Robert Chambliss, until 1997 after which he was finally sentenced to life imprisonment. And to make matters worse, Thomas Blanton and Bob Cherry weren’t found guilty and sentenced to life until 2001 and 2002, respectively — about 40 years after the gruesome murders.
As Jerry White reports in a meticulously researched document published on May 20, 2000, by the International Committee of the Fourth International (ICFI), this 40-year delay occurred despite the fact that the FBI by 1965 already knew who all of the murderers were!
That ICFI document, accessible at wsws.org, disclosed a May 13, 1965, internal FBI memorandum to Director J. Edgar Hoover indicating that “The bombing was the handiwork of … Klansmen Robert E. Chambliss, Bobby Frank Cherry, Herman Frank Cash, and Thomas E. Blanton Jr.” Despite that, Hoover in 1968 terminated the investigation without charging them or anyone else.
The FBI and every other federal, state and local law enforcement agency knew about all the violent racist attacks and brutal racist murders committed in Alabama and throughout the South (and the North, too) before, during and after the 1960s. In fact, Birmingham was so explosively notorious that it was widely known as “Bombingham.”
It must be noted that the 16th Street Baptist Church was targeted not only to murder Black children. It also was targeted because it was used as the rallying center for organizing Blacks to register and to cast their ballots to end racial oppression. Prominent civil rights groups and individuals such as the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, the Congress on Racial Equality, MLK, Ralph Abernathy and Fred Shuttlesworth, among many others, held strategy sessions there, often to mobilize children, some as young as 8.
Fortunately, those four little girls did not die in vain. They actually were the catalyst that forced Congress to pass the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and especially the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
Say their names: Addie Mae Collins, Denise McNair, Carol Robertson and Cynthia Wesley, and Sarah Collins.
Addie loved painting and drawing. Denise loved playing baseball. Carol loved singing. Cynthia loved performing in the school band. Addie should be a 72-year-old woman displaying her paintings at museums across the world. Denise should be a 69-year-old who became the first Black woman manager in Major League Baseball. Carol should be a 72-year-old woman headlining at the Metropolitan Opera House. Cynthia should be a 72-year-old ex officio and Hall of Fame marching band director of North Carolina A&T, which has the largest HBCU band in the country.
Before concluding, I must mention 13-year-old Virgil Ware and 16-year-old Johnny Robinson, both of whom also were murdered by white racists on that same Sept. 15, 1963, date in that same Birmingham area. As documented by Advance Local Media, “Robinson was killed by a police officer’s shotgun [blast to the back] in North Birmingham that afternoon. An hour or so later, Ware was … shot and killed … by a white teenager [with a conspirator] on a road in Jefferson County [when Ware was] riding on the handlebars of a bike while his 16-year-old brother … pedaled.”
No one was ever charged in the murder of Robinson. And although two white 16-year-olds were convicted of murdering Ware, they received probation and served no prison time whatsoever. Murder convictions with no prison time! Stop and think about that for a minute.
Never forget. Always avenge. All of them. And millions of others from 1619-2021.
An attorney and radio host, Michael Coard is a columnist for the Philadelphia Tribune, where this column first appeared. His work appears frequently on the Capital-Star’s Commentary Page.
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