Addie Mae Collins.
For many of us who came up in the ’60s, these names will always be instantly recognizable, impossible to read or to hear–no matter how long it has been–without a deep emotional pull, an admixture of sorrow and anger and, most of all, a profound sense of loss.
Forty-six years ago today, a bomb planted by Ku Klux Klan murderers took the lives of four young teenage girls as they prepared for the first ever Youth Day at the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama. I write this to acknowledge their deaths, sacrifices in the long and painful struggle for Black Freedom, burnt offerings in a conflagration that wound up helping to consume the system of Jim Crow segregation in the Black Belt South.
I write also to memorialize two other young African Americans who died in Birmingham that day. Their names do not have the same resonance, but they died at the hands of white supremacy in this country as surely as did the young women in the basement of Sixteenth Baptist, and their deaths are the kind of deaths that the system still deals out to young Black men in this country.
For all the hold that the Civil Rights Movement’s non-violent ideology had in Birmingham, which had been a battleground against segregation, the killings sparked intense fury in the Black community and the area around the church seethed in near-riot all afternoon. The cars of white gawkers coming past had a hard time of it. When sixteen-year-old Johnnie Robinson saw one marked up with slogans like “Negro, Go Back To Africa,” he chucked a rock at it.
Seeing cops, he fled. As Johnnie ran down an alley, Birmingham cop Jack Parker shot him. In the back. With a shotgun. Johnnie was DOA at University Hospital. An all-white grand jury failed to indict Parker for anything.
The final death was that of thirteen-year-old Virgil Ware, “Peanut” to his family. His father and uncles were coal miners, working at the Docena mine, and Virgil and two brothers shared a paper route. Riding home on the handlebars of his brother James’s bicycle, Virgil crossed paths with Larry Joe Sims and Michael Lee Farley, two sixteen-year-old white Eagle Scouts, who had just attended a rabid segregationist rally where an effigy of Attorney General Bobby Kennedy was burned.
Riding with Farley on his red motorbike decorated with a confederate flag picked up at the National States’ Rights Party headquarters and pieced up with Farley’s pearl-handled pistol, Sims fired at the bike twice.
Virgil fell off the bike and James cried, “Get up, Virge. You trimmin’ me.”
“I’m shot,” Virgil replied. He was, through the lung and the aorta. He died, the sixth victim of a racist murder in Birmingham that day.
The Birmingham press treated it as a tragedy–for the killers. “These two raw, grieved untutored boys who have had this unfortunate thing come into their lives at their age,” was how their high-priced lawyer put it. Both were charged with first degree murder. A Birmingham jury convicted Sims of second degree manslaughter and Farley pleaded to the same. Wallace Gibson, a white judge, the only kind on the bench in Alabama at the time, completed the travesty by suspending their sentences in favor of two years probation.
When we remember Addie, Carole, Denise and Cynthia, it behooves us to remember Johnnie and Virgil as well.
Because young African Americans are still being shot in the back by cops, like Oscar Grant in Oakland last year. Because cops still routinely get a slap on the wrist, if that, for outrageous shootings. Because the “criminal justice system” in the US still treats the killing of a young Black man as a lesser crime than other murders. Because today there are racists every bit as rabid, and as desperate, as those who attended the rally on the day of the church bombing, and they too are burning effigies, waving the Confederate flag and hiding behind talk of states’ rights.
Crossposted from Fire on the Mountain.