On September 15, 1963, four African American schoolgirls were killed in a bombing at the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Ala.
Four young black girls arrived at Sunday school, dressed in their usher whites, giggles on their lips, and hair slightly disheveled from gleeful play–ready to learn about Jesus and sing God’s praises at their mamas’ knees. It was Youth Day at the 16th Street Baptist Church, and even in the midst of the racial turmoil that had seized Birmingham, Ala., they were four little girls living the blissful lives of, well, four little girls.
Hate robbed them of their childhood pleasures. A bomb, planted by a Ku Klux Klansman fiercely opposed to integration, ripped through the basement of their church, sending brick and mortar and furniture hurtling. So strong was the blast that it blew out the face of Jesus in the stained-glass window and stopped the clock.
By the time the chaos had settled into an eerie calm, Carole Denise McNair, 11, and Addie Mae Collins, Cynthia Wesley and Carole Rosamond Robertson, all 14, were dead–buried beneath piles of debris. September 15, 1963, would forever be their day–the day that they became martyrs for the civil rights struggle.
Their deaths changed Alabama–and America, for that matter. In 1963, Jim Crow ruled the South; Medgar Evers was assassinated; thousands marched on Washington, D.C.; and racists set so many bombs in Birmingham that the predominantly black section of town was called Dynamite Hill. But these four girls were the proof that the civil rights movement needed to show America that racism was destroying the fabric of the United States. Less than a year after they died, Congress pushed through the long-fought-for Civil Rights Act of 1964.
While everyone remembers Denise, Addie Mae, Cynthia and Carole as the four little girls, no one really knows the stories behind their stories–how the lives of four families and countless friends were torn to shreds. After more than three decades of silence, their stories were heard on HBO. In the documentary 4 Little Girls, director Spike Lee brings to the screen a detailed accounting of the happiness, the sadness, the glory and the pain that were Denise and Addie Mae and Cynthia and Carole.
“African Americans are far too quick to want to forget,” Lee explains about why he chose to make the documentary. “We don’t want to remember. It’s always: `Let’s forget about slavery, Emmett Till, Rosa Parks, Medgar Evers. Why you wanna go back and bring that up–dredge up that stuff?’ Consequently, we have a generation of black kids who think this is the way it always was–that we could always live where we wanted, eat where we wanted, have church where we wanted. We need to remember.”
While a graduate film student at New York University in the 1980s, Lee wrote a passionate letter to Denise’s father, Christopher McNair, asking if he could do a movie about his daughter. who had shunned giving any more than tempered, cursory comments about his daughter’s death–partly due to fear of retribution, partly because he was tired of people telling him to “let it alone”–declined.
Years later, Lee pitched his idea to McNair again. This time, the reluctant father said yes. “I realized it was stupid to forget,” McNair says of his change of heart. “I want people to, number one, know who the four little girls were and, number two, understand that it just doesn’t pay and that this could have happened anywhere in the United States. Those girls–my daughter–should not have died.”
The film uses bomb survivors, the children’s families, their friends, witnesses, prosecutors, activists and those who defended segregation to tell the story of the bombing and the circumstances that led to it.
Lee, who has often come under fire for the political stands that he’s taken in his cinematic work, says that he chose to film 4 Little Girls as a documentary because he wanted to tell the story without being accused of compromising the story’s integrity–a move, industry observers say, that could very well increase Lee’s chances of being nominated for an Oscar this year. “I want the audience, especially the parents, to think about what they might have done had their child been taken away from them like that,” Lee says. “I want the audience to come to know and love those four little girls.”