Courtesy of 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.”