Three thousand pounds of tribute to six civil rights martyrs – four girls killed in the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church bombing on Sept. 15, 1963, and two young men shot later the same day – are now in place at the northwest entrance to Kelly Ingram Park, wrapped in blue tarp and awaiting unveiling to Birmingham and the world on Saturday afternoon.
Employees from CraneWorks and the City of Birmingham’s Public Works Department unpacked the crate carrying the bronze and steel memorial this morning, and had the main piece, weighing 2,500 pounds, flush in the paved plaza at 10:30 on the dot. The piece shows three of the girls slain in the bombing: Denise McNair, who was 11, and Addie Mae Collins and Cynthia Wesley, both 14, on a bench. A separate statue of Carole Robertson, who also was 14, was anchored in place by mid-afternoon.
The Four Spirits Monument, as it is called, is the culmination of work that started as a concept proposed last year by a volunteer nonprofit committee and made a reality in about four months by Birmingham-born sculptor Elizabeth MacQueen. MacQueen was watching closely, sometimes giving guidance, as workers removed the two sculptures that make up the memorial from a protective wooden crate, prepared them for lifting by a crane and guided the two sculptures to where they were to be anchored. As the memorial came into view during this process, people who were watching came up to thank MacQueen for her work, and some asked to have their picture taken with her.
Working and living at a foundry operation in the Berkeley, California, area, MacQueen completed the sculpture in about four months. A work of that scale usually takes about three times as long, she said.
“I know the hard work that has gone into this effort,” said Birmingham Mayor William Bell, who stopped by to visit the work site and spent time with MacQueen before continuing to some Empowerment Week events at the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church, which stands diagonally across the street. “I know the work of the committee that first came up with the idea of commissioning the project. I know the hard work in raising the funds to have the resources to make it and then the selection…of this lovely young lady to go forward and actually build the sculpture. … There were a lot of roadblocks and barriers, but as always, God found a way to make it happen.”
Asked to describe the process, MacQueen said, “Hard work, hard work, constant hard work and a lot of –” she paused, searching for the word.
“Encouragement,” the mayor said.
As constituted, the memorial primarily consists of a life-size depiction of each of the four girls, who were killed by a Ku Klux Klan bomb as they were getting ready for a Sunday service. On one side of the bench, it also has small tributes, with small medallions showing the faces of Virgil Ware and Johnny Robinson, the two young men shot in racially charged incidents that followed the bombing.
Those watching the installation included some who weren’t alive at the time of the bombing or the other Civil Rights marches that took place in Birmingham in 1963, and some who were part of the Movement themselves and knew that the Sixteenth Street Church was a center of movement activity. One of the latter was Kerry Woodruff, a 1965 Hooper City High graduate who marched in 1963, joined the Air Force after high school and was away from home for 26 years.
“I think I’m supposed to be here,” Woodruff said. “It’s part of my upbringing and everything. It’s part of history. Everything right here is historical.” As for the Civil Rights Movement that brought a spotlight glare to Birmingham, Selma and other parts of Alabama, “a lot of people think it was only for blacks,” he said. “But it wasn’t. It was for everybody.”
While the main part of the memorial was anchored in place, workers began drilling at the spot where Carole Robertson’s statue was supposed to go. However, the loud noise from the drilling was disrupting some Empowerment Week events in the nearby church, and the workers were told to stop until the events were over.
As those events ended near midday, Armond Bragg and his wife Esther walked over from the church. By that time, the main sculpture was swathed in blue. The statue of Carole Robertson was still in full view, awaiting installation and its own blue cover, and a woman walked up and touched her face.
Bragg, 68, a member of the church and a participant in the ’63 demonstrations, said he and his wife were planning to attend Saturday’s unveiling.
“I knew these girls,’’ said Bragg, who became the first chairman of what is now the African-American Business Council with the Birmingham Business Alliance. “I grew up, kind of, with them, had a sister that was about their age. I was not here the day the church was bombed. I worked about six blocks away for Pizitz department store. And because we were in the basement, we didn’t hear the bomb, we didn’t hear the explosion. … It was a pitiful day, a sad day.”
Looking back at that time, Bragg marveled at the commemorative events and other activities of this week that have shown how much Birmingham has changed. He also marveled at what MacQueen had done.
“This is so surreal, I tell you, it’s just amazing,” he said. “I didn’t have any idea that this was going to be this big. … She did an incredible job, believe me, incredible, and we’re very thankful to her for doing this.”
When the memorial is unveiled, the Braggs and others will see Denise McNair reaching skyward into a flock of six doves. The doves represent the souls of the four girls, as well as those of Johnny Robinson and Virgil Ware, and Denise has one bird in each of her hands. Feathers are on her hands and wrists, symbols of a journey she is taking from the temporal realm to the spiritual. Behind Denise, Addie Mae Collins is adjusting a bow on the back of her friend’s dress, while Cynthia Wesley is seated at the end of the bench, a book in her lap open to a passage from “The Stolen Child,” a poem by W.B. Yeats. Carole Robertson, meanwhile, is standing nearby, looking back toward her friends with her right arm extended and her right index finger curled as if to she is telling them it is time for the church service.
“It’s unbelievable,” said a city employee who was part of the installation team.
The Four Spirits Committee vice chairman, attorney Chervis Isom, was on hand for much of the installation work. A small medallion of his face, and that of committee chair Carolyn McKinstry, who was in the church on the morning it was bombed and has written a book about that and related events, are also on the memorial’s bench.
The committee set a goal of about $250,000 to fund the memorial project. Committee member Martha Bozeman said this earlier week that the group was about $5,000 shy of the target.