Remembering Four Little Girls Killed in Birmingham Church Bombing 50 Years Ago

By Chris Hoenig

At 10:22 a.m. on Sunday, Sept. 15, 1963, time literally froze at a Birmingham, Ala., church. A stack of dynamite—planted under a stairway by members of the Ku Klux Klan—exploded, leveling one side of the church and killing four young girls.

At 10:22 a.m. on Sunday, Sept. 15, 2013, siblings and other relatives of Addie Mae Collins, Denise McNair, Carole Robertson and Cynthia Wesley were in the pews at the 16th Street Baptist Church, where Reverend Arthur Price delivered the same sermon the girls would have heard during their Sunday-school lesson: “A Love That Forgives.” Among them was Sarah Collins Rudolph, Addie Mae Collins’ sister, who spent three months in the hospital and lost her right eye as a result of the bombing.

“I just kept wondering, why did they kill Addie Addie never did anything for someone to kill her,” Rudolph told CBS News. “When I would go to bed at night, I would just cry all night long—just why did they kill those girls”

Lisa McNair and Kimberly McNair Brock weren’t born until after the death of their sister Denise, who was the youngest of the girls killed. They told CNN how they were kept from learning the details of what happened that morning for more than a dozen years, until the day their grandmother opened a box containing the items found with their sister the day she died—including a chunk of concrete that lodged in Denise McNair’s skull. “She felt we needed to know,” says Kimberly, “because it was a part of us, too.”

Instead of family trips and special occasions, the pair is left only to imagine what could have been for the sister they never got to meet. “She would have been awesome,” says Lisa, who remembers stories of Denise standing up for others. “A doctor or lawyer or politician.”

“I think she would have left Birmingham. I just think she would have been adventurous,” says Kimberly. “And I’m sure she would have given my parents the grandchildren they wanted.”

Back inside the church, dignitaries including Attorney General Eric Holder and Alabama Governor Robert Bentley also took to the podium to honor the girls. “Our nation lost something precious on that Sunday,” Holder said, adding that hate must always be “confronted and defeated.”

For Bentley, the hate that led to the death of these four innocent girls is something that will never be forgotten. “Birmingham certainly still bears the scars of its turbulent past, [but] today we choose to look beyond those ugly scars,” he said. “What will our nation look like 50 years forward That’s up to us.”

Last week, the four girls were posthumously awarded the Congressional Gold Medal, one of the highest civilian honors in the country. But it’s a recognition that is far too little, far too late for Sarah Collins Rudolph, who initially declined to attend the ceremony. “I’m letting the world know, my sister didn’t die for freedom,” she said at the time. “My sister died because they put a bomb in that church and they murdered her.”

Rudolph is asking for compensation for the families of the victims, a feeling echoed by author Michelle Alexander:

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