Honoring the four little girls who were murdered 60 years after the KKK attack
By Kara Nelson
(CNN) – On the morning of September 15, 1963, Rev. John H. Cross Jr. and members of 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, were preparing to begin their Youth Day worship service when a bomb exploded.
“I will never forget that horrible noise,” said Barbara Cross, the pastor’s eldest daughter. “I remember everything getting very dark and you could hear the children screaming.”
At 10:22 a.m., a massive explosion sent glass, cement and debris flying. An FBI investigation later discovered that four members of the Ku Klux Klan (KKK) had planted dynamite under cement stairs outside the church.
The explosion toppled power lines and created a hole in the side of the building, completely destroying the women’s restroom in the basement where a group of girls were preparing to go to church.
Four young girls were murdered at church on Sunday morning: 11-year-old Denise McNair, along with 14-year-old Cynthia Wesley, Carol Robertson, and 14-year-old Addie Mae Collins. Nearly twenty others were injured.
In the 60 years since the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing, the church has been rebuilt, and the stained glass has been repaired, but there are still wounds that time has not yet healed. Family and friends say that decades later, they still hold on to their memories and grieve the loss of the four girls who were killed that day.
Addie May Collins
Her sister was the fifth girl in the bathroom
The four girls who died were not alone in the basement that bloody Sunday. Addie May’s sister, 12-year-old Sarah, was also injured in the explosion.
Decades later, Sarah Collins Rudolph told CNN that she remembers Denise asking Addie Mae to tie the sash of her dress. But before her sister could tie the bow, the bomb exploded, she said.
The force of the explosion threw pieces of glass and fragments that were embedded in Collins Rudolph’s face. The explosion not only stole her older sister’s life and the lives of her friends, but also took Collins Rudolph’s sight.
“When they took the bandages off my left eye, at that time, I couldn’t see anything but a little light,” she recalls. “That right eye, it was so damaged, they had to remove it.”
Collins Rudolph spent the rest of her life with an artificial eye.
“When they put that bomb under that church, they didn’t know who they were going to kill. They didn’t care,” she said.
Addie Mae was a quiet girl who always walked to church with her sisters, recalled Sharon Owens, a childhood friend of the four victims. “They were the sweetest,” she said.
As she grew older, Owens said her mother would always say, “We have to remember the Collins girls.” Thus, they developed a routine for distributing her clothes.
Decades later, Owens said many in the Birmingham community are still traumatized by the bombing.
She said that history recognizes “those who did not succeed, but it does not recognize those who went through horror.”
Collins Rudolph said she still faces ongoing health complications since the bombing and is still paying her medical bills out of her own pocket. She said she would like to receive compensation from the state of Alabama for her suffering.
“It’s been a long time coming, and I need this apology,” she said. “They took my whole life away from me.”
Girl Talks and the Beverly Hillbillies
Denise, often called “Niecy” by her friends, was the youngest victim of the church bombing. Rhonda Nunn, Denise’s neighbor and childhood friend, remembers her as a compassionate and loving girl.
She said she will never forget the day Denise walked home carrying a lifeless bird after one of Birmingham’s notorious summer storms.
“I thought, ‘Oh, you’ve got to put this down,'” she recalled.
Instead, Dennis insisted on hosting a funeral, and with the help of other neighborhood kids, they placed the bird in a large matchbox to bury it.
Maxine McNair, Denise’s mother, came across the street and sang “one of the most beautiful versions of the Lord’s Prayer I’ve ever heard,” Nunn recalled.
“I’ve never been to a more expensive funeral.”
While Noon worked in her flower garden, she and Denise wrote poems, made up stories, and talked with the girls.
“She was one of the few people I felt comfortable talking to,” Nunn said. But after the bombing, things were no longer as they were in the park.
“For a while I wasn’t going to go out there,” she said. “I cried every time I went.”
Nunn said Denise enjoyed watching The Beverly Hillbillies with her younger sister Barbara.
“After Nessie died, my sister thought the best way to stay in touch was to keep her updated on what was going on at the Beverly Hillbillies,” Nunn said. After a new episode, Barbara would go back to the bathroom at the back of her house to tell Denise about the show, Nunn said.
Lisa McNair, Denise’s sister, was born a year after the murder and never had the opportunity to know her sister in person.
“My dad was telling me it was too early,” McNair told CNN. “He said she was a true leader, very stubborn and driven.”
“We often said that if she had lived, she probably would have been a lawyer because she was always asserting a certain point of view,” McNair said. “I think after she died, she was still teaching lessons.”
‘She was a peacemaker’
Carol Robertson was the child of her family consisting of her older brother, Alvin Robertson, Jr., and her older sister, Diane Robertson.
“We were a very close-knit family and we did a lot of things together,” Diane Robertson told CNN.
“The thing that always amazed me was that she was the youngest child, but she often showed wisdom far beyond her years,” she said.
When tensions rose at home, “she was always the mediator between my brother and me,” Diane recalls.
“She was a peacemaker.”
Six decades later, Diane said she still wonders what her sister would have been like when she grew up.
“She had a lot of positive characteristics and interests.”
Carol was an outstanding student who loved to read and volunteer at the Smithfield Public Library, her sister said.
She was actively involved in Girl Scouts, the Jack and Jill of America leadership organization, as well as the Parker High School Science Club and Band. Their father, Alvin Robertson Sr., was a musician and taught Carol how to play the clarinet, Diane said.
Diane transferred to college two years before her sister was murdered.
“That’s part of what I regret,” she said. “I was away at college, and this is when we could have started bonding more.”
On the morning of the bombing, Diane said, “Their mother allowed Carole to choose a pair of shoes with a two-inch heel.”
“It was her first shoe that wasn’t flat and I know she was happy with that.”
Diane was in New York with her aunt when the bomb exploded.
“When she told me what happened, I fainted,” she recalls. “It was unbelievable… How could something like this happen?”
“She was always laughing.”
Cynthia was adopted into the Wesley family. A childhood friend of Owens’ said she remembers attending Vacation Bible School with Cynthia during the summer of 1962, and remembers her as a “social butterfly.”
“She was a little older, but we were looking at the big girls,” Owens said. “We would go to the bathroom at church and they would be there putting on their makeup and fixing their hair.”
Another childhood friend, Carolyn Moll McKinstry, said Cynthia was always happy and enjoyed being around a lot.
“She was always laughing,” she said.
Moll McKinstry remembers that Cynthia was petite and said she often admired her clothes. She said: “I was looking at her and wondering: Where did she find these dresses that fit her so elegantly and beautifully?”
Cynthia’s mother, Gertrude Wesley, made her clothes. “I knew she was a teacher, but she was also a seamstress,” Moll McKinstry said. “And an excellent one.”
The two childhood friends were also part of the “Cavalettes,” a camaraderie club for young girls. Dues were only a quarter, and the girls’ club met at each other’s homes.
“It was always a happy time when we all got together,” Moll McKinstry said. “We were just playing records and dancing.”
On the day of the bombing, the club was scheduled to meet at 3 p.m., and “we were all excited,” Moll McKinstry said.
She said she left the basement to go upstairs minutes before the bomb exploded. Losing her friend and dealing with the bombing was something Moll McKinstry struggled with for a long time.
“I was 15 when the church was bombed, but then I was 15 for the next 20 years.”
Bombingham and the four Klan members
“The deaths of those four girls were the largest single loss of life” during the civil rights movement, said Barry McNeely, a historical content expert at the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute.
Bombings were so frequent in Birmingham that the city was nicknamed “Bombingham,” according to McNealy.
16th Street Baptist Church has historically been a place for civil rights activists to host strategy meetings.
“So the church was a natural target for someone who was trying to make a dramatic statement,” McNealy said.
Two years after the church bombing, the FBI identified four Klansmen as the prime suspects: Thomas Blanton, Bobby Frank Cherry, Herman Frank Cash, and Robert “Dynamite Bob” Chambliss.
“Chambliss was a pioneer in planting bombs as far back as the 1930s in Birmingham,” McNealy said.
The investigation was closed in 1968 without any charges being filed due to “the reluctance of witnesses to speak and the lack of physical evidence,” according to the FBI.
In 1976, news became public that then-Alabama Attorney General Bill Baxley had reopened the investigation into the bombing. The investigation eventually led to Chambliss’ conviction in 1977. Decades later, Blanton was convicted and sentenced to four consecutive life sentences in 2001, CNN previously reported. Cherry’s conviction followed in 2002.
CNN previously reported that Cash died in 1994 and was not charged in the case.
“Love that forgives”
The families and loved ones of the four girls continue to press their legacy to ensure that what happened on Bloody Sunday is never forgotten.
In her book Dear Denise: Letters to the Sister I Never Knew, Lisa McNair wrote letters she wished she could share with her late sister.
Diane Robertson went on to name her daughter after Carol. She also remains active in the Carol Robertson Learning Center and in Jack and Jill of America, which honors her sister every year.
While the tragedy left a lingering void, pain and anger, forgiveness was a common theme among the families and friends who spoke to CNN.
“My parents quickly helped us understand that all white people were not evil and did not want us to die,” McNair said. “Some of them might like us and want to be our friends.”
On the Sunday of the bombing, Pastor Cross had planned to preach a sermon called “The Love That Forgives.”
Although the church was bombed before the message was preached, the lesson still resonates loud and clear.
“I used to say this saying: ‘Let men learn to replace bitterness and violence with love, love, love, love,'” his daughter, Barbara Cross, said. “I said it four times in memory of each girl.”
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