(The Root) — In 1988, not long after civil rights lawyer, and Southern Poverty Law Center co-founder, Morris Dees won a case against the Ku Klux Klan that bankrupted one of the hate group's major arms, Dees took the podium at a national NAACP gathering. He talked about 19-year-old Michael Donald's 1981 death at the hands of two Klansmen, the related suit and why Donald should be remembered as one of the nation's civil rights martyrs. Afterward, a teenager in the audience approached Dees.
"This person knew about the four little girls killed at 16th Street Baptist Church," says Lecia Brooks, an outreach director at the SPLC, referring to the church bombing in Birmingham, Ala., on Sept. 15, 1963. "They knew Martin Luther King Jr. and [Medgar] Evers. But they just had no sense of how violence has consistently been used to intimidate and maintain an unjust social order."
Now, 50 years after a bomb killed four little girls and focused the nation's attention on the brutal measures sometimes used to enforce the legal and social subjugation of black Americans, knowledge of that broader history remains surprisingly limited. The church bombing is part of a long list of race-related violence that permeates the national consciousness, inspires outrage, shame and change, especially when it claims children as its victims.
"I think that over the years, what's happened in the average American's mind is that the civil rights movement has been watered down," says Rashad Robinson, executive director of the nonprofit civil rights organization ColorOfChange.org. "There was some singing and some protests, and Martin Luther King gave a really, really great speech and everything was soon fine. But there was a lot of blood and sweat and sacrifice."
Birmingham and the Civil Rights Movement
Even what happened in Birmingham has been simplified, says Diane McWhorter, a fellow at Harvard University's W.E.B. Du Bois Institute for African and African American Research. (The institute's director, Henry Louis Gates Jr., is The Root's editor-in-chief.)
A large portion of Birmingham's black bourgeoisie worshipped at the 16th Street Baptist Church, says McWhorter, author of the 2001 book Carry Me Home: Birmingham, Alabama: The Climactic Battle of the Civil Rights Revolution. Before the church bombing, support for the civil rights movement was far from uniform. Many feared the attention, disruption and violence that the movement had already wrought in Birmingham.
And in white Birmingham, where sentiment toward the movement ranged from sympathetic in some small progressive corners to outright anger, bombings and other acts of violence became an accepted part of life, a reasonable response to Negroes who failed to remain in their proper place. "There had been so many bombings before where there had been no fatalities that this magical thinking had taken over in Birmingham," says McWhorter. "Some people really thought no one would get killed. [They believed] the bombers knew what they were doing and they weren't intending to kill anyone.'"
Shortly after the bombing, Birmingham's mayor described the whole city as a community of innocents "injured" by an outrageous event, despite years of complicity and strategic head turning from city officials, business owners and white vigilantes willing to set acts of domestic terrorism in motion.
Across the nation, the knowledge that four girls had been blown apart in a house of worship breathed new life into the struggling Civil Rights Act, McWhorter explains. President John Kennedy had introduced the bill to Congress in June 1963, five months before his assassination. It became law in July 1964, passing after President Lyndon Johnson declared it the most fitting memorial to Kennedy and the four little girls killed in Birmingham.
When the Young and Innocent Die
When the Alabama attorney general requested the FBI's evidence and brought the first charges against the Klansman involved in the church bombing more than a decade later, prosecutors emphasized that the bombing wasn't just a violent attack on a place of worship that injured 22 people and killed four. The people who died had been "four little girls."
"I think there is no question that this country has a long and not-at-all storied history of racial violence and domestic terror that has cost an untold number of people their lives," says Mark Potok, one of the country's leading experts on hate groups. Potok is editor-in-chief of the SPLC's quarterly journal, the Intelligence Report, as well as its Hatewatch blog and its investigative reports that track hate groups. Potok has also mapped the way that language and ideas originated by hate groups have wormed their way into the mainstream.
"What the hell is the Klan if not a terrorist group?" he says. "But the sad reality is that I think the bombing at 16th Street Baptist and the murder of those four little girls finally focused white America's attention on those facts."
The Birmingham church bombing drew the attention of the nation's major newspapers and magazines. In black America, the 1955 torture and death of Emmett Till and the unusual decision by Emmett's mother and Jet magazine to publish pictures of the once-handsome boy's disfigured corpse had already provided a stirring testament to the violence that blacks in the South faced daily, says Brooks.
The reason: For most Americans, even the most prejudiced among them, children are more sympathetic victims, Potok says. But the girls killed at 16th Street Baptist weren't just young. They were also not involved in civil rights protests and had not confronted the white power structure in a way that had been used to temper outrage about the deaths of other civil rights martyrs.
Their innocence was almost as significant as their deaths, Potok argues.
As proof, he points to the 1995 bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City. The explosion killed 168 people, 19 of them young children. But the most iconic picture of the tragedy is that of a firefighter carrying the limp and injured body of a small child.
Before Oklahoma City, young, disaffected white men deeply interested in guns and a return to a different kind of America, like bomber Timothy McVeigh, were seen as ordinary, Potok says. After the bombing, many more white Americans came to see them and the militia groups they formed as potentially dangerous.
It was also no coincidence, Potok argues, that supporters of Trayvon Martin — shot and killed in 2012 by George Zimmerman — often emphasized his youth. Trayvon was described as a beloved and average, unarmed teenager with normal hobbies and dreams who was killed after a trip to the store for Skittles and iced tea. "At the same time, Zimmerman's supporters, who profess an aversion to racism but espouse an idea very popular with hate groups — there is good reason to universally suspect and surveil black men — did everything possible to recast Trayvon Martin as a dangerous, full-grown man," Potok says.
The Specter of 'Stand Your Ground'
Trayvon's death and the trial outcome didn't just conjure reasons for the grim safety lectures that black parents have long had to give their children. The case terrified many black parents because it made clear that race-related danger remains a threat, and successful prosecution far from assured, says ColorOfChange.org's Robinson.
"I don't think I can say with certainty that George Zimmerman is a domestic terrorist," he says. "Some might call him a vigilante or a bumbling wannabe cop who followed and shot a young boy because of his racist suspicions. But we can say that he likely walked free because of laws sanctioned and bolstered by some of the country's largest corporations, which also happen to sell a lot of guns. And that is no doubt petrifying for a lot of America."
More than 30 states now maintain "Stand your ground" laws similar to Florida's. A series of independent studies have shown that the number of justifiable homicides (pdf) — shooting deaths in which no one was prosecuted or served jail time — in these states has increased considerably. These laws have also produced another kind of unequal justice: substantial racial disparities in the prosecution of such homicides.
"Is it really any wonder that so many people are outraged and afraid right now, 50 years after four little girls lost their lives in Birmingham?" Robinson says.
Janell Ross is a reporter in New York who covers political and economic issues. She is working on a book about race, economic inequality and the recession, due to be published by Beacon Press next year. Follow her on Twitter.