Lessons From the Birmingham Bombing

Fifty years after four little girls died in a church, black children still face racial injustice.

The four girls killed during the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing (screenshot from YouTube)

The circumstances that lead to the injury and killing of black children have changed, but the outcomes remain debilitating and, in certain instances, deadly.

The “outrage and grief” that Kennedy eloquently expressed on behalf of the American people did not last. In the ensuing five decades, black children are still viewed by myriad institutions in society — school, courts, police — as potential predators and prisoners rather than future leaders.

The killings of Trayvon Martin, Oscar Grant and countless other innocent young black men and women are the tip of a sizable iceberg of dehumanization when it comes to children of color in the United States. Fifty years after the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing, the lives of young black girls and boys are more imperiled than ever. The murder of four black girls in Birmingham reflected the value the larger society placed on black lives.

There is a potential silver lining to the commemoration of the Birmingham tragedy, and that lies in creating a new political and moral system in America that values the lives of all of our children, regardless of skin color, economic opportunity, citizenship and ethnic and religious origin. In the 1960s, overt racism plagued the life chances of little black girls and boys. The blatant Jim Crow system that haunted America’s racial past has been eliminated, but racism’s pernicious effects on the hopes and dreams of African-American children remain. Honoring the legacy of Denise McNair, Carole Robertson, Addie Mae Collins and Cynthia Wesley can best be done by renewing our focus on the institutions and structures that stifle the potential of a generation of African-American girls and boys who, although they no longer have to worry about church bombs, daily confront the fresh scars of racism and the New Jim Crow.

Peniel E. Joseph is founding director of the Center for the Study of Race and Democracy and a professor of history at Tufts University. Follow him on Twitter. The center will convene a National Dialogue on Race Day on Sept. 12, 2013, and invites all to join in the conversation. Follow the center on Twitter.