This weekend, as we reflect on the 50th anniversary of the fatal bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, we are tasked to look at our own times and our own role in the struggle to preserve the constitutionally guaranteed Civil Rights of all Americans.
On Sept. 15, 1963, members of the Ku Klux Klan bombed the 16th Street Baptist Church, killing Addie Mae Collins, 14, Denise McNair, 11, Carole Robertson, 14, and Cynthia Wesley, 14. The tragic bombing was part of systematic campaign of domestic terrorism carried out by The Klan and other hate groups against black citizens and Civil Rights activists in an attempt to slow the progress being made on behalf of justice and equality.
The bombing and other such acts of violence and terrorism had the opposite of their intended impact. The bombing and similar acts of brutality galvanized the Movement and made obvious to other Americans the horror and brutality being visited upon innocent citizens who were merely asking for their rights. Public opinion was irreversibly swayed to the side of justice, and many pieces of landmark Civil Rights legislation were passed in the months following the bombing.
Now, half a century later, reactionary forces in federal and state legislatures and judiciaries have found a way to do with bills and laws and rulings what bombs and guns and dogs were unable to achieve: the electoral disenfranchisement of people of color and other citizens whose views and votes support the advancement of civil rights and social justice. The people and the party who win elections have the right to run the government, but they do not have the authority to deny people their rights. Rights are guaranteed by the constitution and cannot be subject to erosion or denial due to the outcome an election.
So, as we stop this week to honor the four children who died in Birmingham 50 years ago, we rightfully condemn the prejudice and hatred and violence that took them from us. But there is another, equally important way to honor their memory. We need to look at them not just as “little girls” who were martyred to the causes of justice and equality, but to also acknowledge that, had they lived, they would be nearly 65 years of age today, and to ask the questions: Had they not been murdered and if they were still with us today, would they have healthcare? Would they have a safe place to live? Would they be allowed to vote? There are those in our politics who try every day to place at risk an affirmative response to these questions. I say we must fight to defeat those who would have us go backwards and relinquish the ground for which some many have fought and died.
Newly-passed voter I.D. laws in North Carolina and elsewhere have but one purpose: to make it more difficult, if not impossible, for young people, poor people, people of color and senior citizens to cast a ballot. I have called on U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder to have the United States Justice Department investigate North Carolina’s new law, expressing concern that it will unduly and unnecessarily limit the ability of minorities, seniors, students, the disabled, and low and middle income citizens to exercise their constitutionally guaranteed right to vote.
It is proper and necessary that we mourn and remember the victims of the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing and all other lives ended too soon due to violence and ignorance and hatred. But it is equally proper and necessary that we remain vigilant in our defense of the dignity and quality of life and civil rights of all citizens. We honor the deceased in our fight for the living. We should work to ensure that, had Addie Mae Collins, Denise McNair, Carole Robertson, and Cynthia Wesley not been brutally murdered 50 years ago Sunday, they would have entered their golden years without fear of discrimination, deprivation or disenfranchisement. I can think of no better way to honor them than to continue to oppose those who would seek to deny them and all other Americans those basic rights.