Four Girls Jubilee: Ring Bells for Addie Mae, Carole, Cynthia, & Denise

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Call to Remembrance, September 15th Weekend

Four precious girls, Addie Mae Collins, 14, Carole Robertson, 14, Cynthia Wesley, 14, & Denise McNair, 11, were murdered by the Ku Klux Klan’s terrorist bombing of Birmingham’s Sixteenth Street Baptist Church 50 years ago on Sunday morning, September 15, 1963. “Birmingham Sunday” marked a vital turning point in the Civil Rights Movement. The grief and anger sparked the all-out, nonviolent voting rights campaign that produced the 1965 Voting Rights Act—recently debilitated by the Supreme Court.

In the Judeo-Christian tradition, a (golden) jubilee is the time 50 years after a monumental injustice when new generations seek redemption, repair, and reconciliation—in the name of all those who have sacrificed their lives.

The ringing of the big bell (saved from the bombed Birmingham church) at the Lincoln Memorial on Weds., Aug. 28 by Dr. King's only grandchild Yolanda, and mention of the four girls' deaths by President Obama & President Clinton was an important recognition. Yet so much more needs to be done to honor the four girls and all of the “foot soldiers,” the grassroots organizers then and today, who have sacrificed so much, sometimes their lives, and have received little recognition for their commitment to social and economic justice.

Half a century after the horror of Birmingham Sunday, we have an opportunity next week to commemorate these four lost lives and to (re)commit ourselves to the aims of racial and economic justice for which they died. We know that racial and economic justice are more entwined than ever, the “malignant kinship” of race and class.

This is a call on all Americans, of all ages, colors, and creeds, to find a fitting way to honor the four girls, on or around Sunday, Sept. 15, 2013, that looks toward how our pressing goals of racial, economic, and environmental justice can be attained. And how, specifically, they can get going, keep going, on this journey now.

Each college campus, high school, middle or elementary school, house of worship, neighborhood, workplace, or community organization is encouraged to organize their own forward-looking commemoration. Such a program might consist of any of the following, or others that might be more locally meaningful:

Houses of Worship: Churches that meet on Sunday morning could ring their bells or chimes four times on Sept. 15th at 10:22 a.m., the moment of the bombing that literally stopped the clock forever in the Birmingham church sanctuary. And for the minister or lay person to call out the names of the four girls, Addie Mae Collins, Carole Robertson, Cynthia Wesley, & Denise McNair. If synagogues and mosques that gather on Friday or Saturday of that weekend can find a moment to ring bells in the girls’ memory or do another form of remembrance, perhaps a talk, sermon, or song. Friday night Sept. 13 through Saturday is Yom Kippur, the Jewish Day of Atonement.

Here are a few other suggestions for how colleges, schools, community groups, and places of worship might choose to commemorate “Birmingham Sunday” and the sacrifices of all of the foot soldiers in the Civil Rights Movement:

  •     Facilitated dialogues on racial, economic, and/or environmental justice, culminating in action plans
  •     Specific dialogues and action plans on current issues such as: voting rights suppression; mass incarceration of African Americans and Latinos (the “new Jim Crow”); global slavery; sweatshop labor; immigrants’ rights; violence against youth of color & against women and girls; joblessness; age discrimination; retirement; family debt burdens, esp. student debt
  •     Film showings (e.g., Spike Lee’s “Four Little Girls”) followed by dialogue
  •     Dramatic readings and performances (e.g., dance improv, poetry slams), with dialogue
  •     Campus or church gospel choir performances on the Sept. 15 weekend.

Our website offers a free online Discussion Guide that participants can use, or adapt freely, for facilitated discussions.

Let’s make the weekend of Sept. 15 a moment of hope, vision, and commitment—a time to make history in the here and now!

About Stewart Burns: Civil rights historian & nonviolent activist, author of “‘We Will Stand Here Till We Die’: Freedom Movement Shakes America, Shapes Martin Luther King Jr.” MLK biographer (“To the Mountaintop”), former editor of King Papers at Stanford, co-founder, Center for Learning in Action, Williams College

For more information and resources visit or, or email sburns(at)williams(dot)edu.

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Stewart Burns
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