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Sept. 15 marks the 50th anniversary of perhaps the most tragic episode of the civil rights movement. On that day Denise McNair, 11, Carole Robertson, 14, Addie Mae Collins,14, and Cynthia Wesley, 14, were killed in a terrorist-sponsored explosion at the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Ala. Their deaths overtook the hopeful mood inspired by the March on Washington just weeks earlier.

If the March on Washington called upon Americans of all races to embrace a higher democratic purpose capable of transcending ancient divisions, the deaths of four black girls in Birmingham (three of whom were buried exactly three weeks after the march) exposed the brutal face of institutional racism and white supremacy for the entire world to see. “I know I speak on behalf of all Americans in expressing a deep sense of outrage and grief,” observed President John F. Kennedy at the time.

The use of sticks of dynamite to trigger the explosion was not surprising since civil rights activists referred to the city as “Bombingham,” recognizing explosives as the weapon of choice for white terrorist groups.
Denise, Carole, Addie Mae and Cynthia represent unique martyrs of the civil rights era.
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