(The Root) — Sept. 15 marks the 50th anniversary of perhaps the most tragic episode of the civil rights movement. On that day Denise McNair, 11, Carole Robertson, 14, Addie Mae Collins, 14, and Cynthia Wesley, 14, were killed in a terrorist-sponsored explosion at the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Ala. Their deaths overtook the hopeful mood inspired by the March on Washington just weeks earlier.
If the March on Washington called upon Americans of all races to embrace a higher democratic purpose capable of transcending ancient divisions, the deaths of four black girls in Birmingham (three of whom were buried exactly three weeks after the march) exposed the brutal face of institutional racism and white supremacy for the entire world to see. "I know I speak on behalf of all Americans in expressing a deep sense of outrage and grief," observed President John F. Kennedy at the time.
The use of sticks of dynamite to trigger the explosion was not surprising since civil rights activists referred to the city as "Bombingham," recognizing explosives as the weapon of choice for white terrorist groups.
Denise, Carole, Addie Mae and Cynthia represent unique martyrs of the civil rights era. Their murders served as a warning to the entire black community that the dream Martin Luther King Jr. advocated at the nation's capital would not be so easily achieved.
In a very real sense, like the lynching of Emmett Till, the deaths of these four little girls in Alabama highlighted the cheapness of black life in Jim Crow America. African-American children, that most precious commodity that carried the hopes and promise of the future, could be killed, seemingly at will, in a society that devalued their mothers and fathers and enslaved their ancestors.
On Sept. 18, 1963, three weeks after delivering his "I Have a Dream" speech in Washington, King eulogized three of the four victims during a funeral in Birmingham. In front of the Lincoln Memorial, King had challenged America to "make real the promise of democracy"; he now spoke of the "amazing democracy about death."
President Kennedy's shocking assassination nine weeks later overwhelmed the church bombing's significance in the public's imagination, relegating the deaths to be simply viewed as part of the year's violence. Spike Lee's 1997 documentary, 4 Little Girls, brought renewed and national media attention to the story, but it still remains a distant tragedy in popular memory.
Fifty years later, America still wrestles with the echoes of Birmingham's dehumanization of black schoolchildren. Black children in 2013 are more likely to attend segregated schools, endure poverty and hunger and be connected to the juvenile-justice system than their white counterparts. Gang violence in cities such as Chicago and Boston has left scores of innocent children dead or permanently injured. Black women, especially those living in poverty, face the burdens of being the primary caregiver, parent and breadwinner in a society that openly devalues their worth as women, mothers, wives and sisters. Poor black women still experience a lack of access to health care and support for domestic violence, sexual abuse, rape and HIV/AIDS awareness and child care.
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.
Peniel E. Joseph, a contributing editor at The Root, is professor and founding director, the Center for the Study of Race and Democracy, the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas at Austin. He is the author of Waiting ’Til the Midnight Hour: A Narrative History of Black Power in America, Dark Days, Bright Nights: From Black Power to Barack Obama and Stokely: A Life. Follow him on Twitter.