A large bronze memorial to the four girls killed 50 years ago in the bombing of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church is finished. After being transported to Birmingham, it is expected to be unveiled at a site across from the church on September 14.
Birmingham-born sculptor Elizabeth MacQueen and a team of fellow sculptors and specialists have been putting the life-size monument together at two facilities in the Berkeley, California, area. When installed, the memorial will show the four girls – Denise McNair, who was 11, Cynthia Wesley, Addie Mae Collins and Carole Robertson, who all were 14 – in and around a bench with a flock of six doves. Overall, according to a news release from the group behind the memorial effort, the sculpture is nearly 10 feet tall and five feet long. Its home will on the corner of Sixteenth Street North and Sixth Avenue North at the edge of Kelly Ingram, just a short walk from the park’s statue of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
Kelly Ingram was the scene of Civil Rights demonstrations, some of them led by King, and dramatic confrontations between demonstrators and authorities during Birmingham’s landmark Civil Rights year of 1963. Monuments throughout the park commemorate those events. But there is no standing memorial to the four girls, who were killed as they were preparing for a Sunday morning service on September 15. In the decades that followed, three men were prosecuted and sent to prison for their roles in the bombing.
Last year a nonprofit committee organized around the goal of getting a memorial to the girls in the park. The committee took the name Four Spirits, Inc., from the title of a novel by Birmingham native Sena Jeter Naslund on the events of 1963. Carolyn Maull McKinstry, a member of the Sixteenth Street Church who knew the four girls and was at the church on the morning of the bombing, is the chair of the Four Spirits board. Chervis Isom, an attorney who has written a forthcoming memoir about his own journey from racial prejudice to tolerance and acceptance, is the vice chair.
“This is very exciting for the Four Spirits, Inc. board, the people and organizations who have graciously supported this project and the entire community,” Isom said in a news release. “Our objective is to create an appropriate and lasting public memorial for the four girls. We are thankful to sculptor Elizabeth MacQueen for her tireless work.”
So far, the committee, which set a rough goal of $250,000 to fund the memorial, has raised more than $200,000 in pledges and donations. A fundraiser is scheduled from 5 p.m. until 6:30 p.m. Thursday at the law firm of Wiggins Childs Quinn and Pantazis LLC in the historic Kress Building downtown. Alabama First Lady Lady Dianne Bentley and Birmingham First Lady Sharon Bell will be honorary co-chairs. Online donations can be made here.
The unveiling of the Four Spirits memorial comes as Birmingham is observing the events of 1963 in a variety of ways. This week, for example, the Dorothy Jemison Day Theatre will host a musical adaptation of While the World Watched, a memoir by McKinstry that focuses heavily her memories of 1963, during which she was among the ranks of Birmingham school students who joined in the demonstrations.
In addition, Denise McNair’s father, former Jefferson County Commissioner Chris McNair, was released last week for medical reasons from a federal prison where he has been serving time on public corruption charges. McNair’s attorney, Doug Jones, the former U.S. attorney who led the successful prosecutions of Tommy Blanton and Bobby Frank Cherry, two of the three men convicted in the bombing, said this week his client is “taking things day by day.
“That said, I do believe he will do his best to attend the unveiling,” said Jones, who also is on the Four Spirits board.
“One of my greatest desires was for him to be there,” Elizabeth MacQueen said in an email after getting word last week of McNair’s pending release.
In fashioning the memorial, MacQueen sought to give the work a spiritual and temporal touch. The doves, which symbolize the Holy Spirit or the life to come, are a key element in that design. In the finished work, Denise McNair is reaching exuberantly for the birds as they head skyward, and she has one in each hand. Feathers are on her hands and wrists, a suggestion that she will soon take wing herself.
The number of doves in the memorial is six because MacQueen wanted to pay tribute not only to the four slain girls, but also to two young men, Virgil Ware and Johnny Robinson, who were shot and killed in separate incidents that followed the church bombing.
“This memorial to four girls and two boys is to continue to remind us that…actions seduced by the philosophy of fear of those who are different are much more than folly, and come with endless consequences,” MacQueen said.
The unveiling of the memorial is scheduled to take place at 4 p.m.