Kelly Ingram Park is full of monuments to Birmingham’s Civil Rights Movement of 1963, but it has no standing memorial to that pivotal year’s most tragic event, the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church bombing that killed four young girls as they were getting ready for a Sunday morning service.
A local nonprofit committee, Four Spirits Inc., is working to correct that oversight. The group has a design for a memorial, submitted by a renowned Birmingham-born sculptor, that consists largely of bronze, life-size statues of the girls: Cynthia Wesley, Carole Robertson and Addie Mae Collins, each of whom was 14 years old, and Denise McNair, who was 11. The committee has selected a site for the monument in the park, catty-cornered to the church, and hopes to have the monument in place on or near the 50th anniversary of the bombing on September 15.
The price tag for the project is $250,000. At the end of March, the committee had raised about a fourth of that amount.
Four Spirits’ chair Carolyn McKinstry said a memorial to the four girls is past due, especially since their deaths had a significance that ranged well beyond the boundaries of Birmingham.
“They belong to the world, but they belong to us first,” McKinstry said. “So it’s appropriate that we remember them in this very special way because their lives meant so much in terms of how the world changed so much after their deaths.”
McKinstry should know. She was in the Sixteenth Street church when the Ku Klux Klan-planted dynamite blast shattered the Sunday morning routine. She knew Addie Mae, Carole, Cynthia and Denise, as well as the other church members who were injured in the bombing. Earlier in the year, she had been among the young people who took to the streets and were willing to face fire hoses and police dogs to keep pressure on city authorities to repeal the city’s segregation ordinances.
Over the years, as part of her Ministry of Reconciliation and Forgiveness, McKinstry has taken the Birmingham story around the world. She also has been pleased to see the placement in Kelly Ingram of a statue of Martin Luther King Jr. and other monuments that evoke the “dark times” of ’63, as well as the construction of the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute across 16th Street from the park.
But she has been troubled by the lack of a meaningful, high-profile monument to her four slain church friends. She mentioned its absence in her 2011 memoir, While the World Watched.
In the spring of 2011, Birmingham attorney Chervis Isom came upon the passage while reading McKinstry’s book. Like perhaps so many others in Birmingham and beyond, Isom had long thought there was a monument to the four girls, and he was “floored” to learn otherwise.
“If you had said to me, ‘Where is the monument to the four little girls?’ I would have said, ‘I’m sure there’s one, but where is it?’” Isom said.
Isom called McKinstry, whom he had never met. They talked about the need for a monument to the girls, and they met to discuss it further at the Norwood Resource Center in Isom’s old neighborhood. Also on hand were center director Melodie Echols and local attorney Martha Bozeman who, like Isom, is a member of the center board. They agreed to form a committee and boost its ranks.
As presently constituted, its board, in addition to its original four, includes former U.S. Atty. Doug Jones, who helped prosecute and convict Tommy Blanton and Bobby Frank Cherry, two of the main suspects in the church bombing; Kimberly McNair Brock, who would have been a younger sister to Denise McNair had Denise not died in 1963; Yvonne Lowery Kennedy, daughter of Alabama native and longtime Southern Christian Leadership Conference leader Joseph Lowery; Drew Langloh, president and CEO of United Way of Central Alabama Inc., Weld publisher Mark Kelly and former television newsman Rick Journey.
The group also has two honorary members. One is former Attorney General Bill Baxley, whose office reopened the bombing case and landed the first successful prosecution, that of “Dynamite Bob” Chambliss in 1977. The other is Addie Mae Collins’ younger sister, Sarah Collins Rudolph, who was seriously injured in the bomb blast and lost an eye.
In addition, the board has a fiscal agent handling contributions to the project – the Community Foundation of Greater Birmingham.
By the early fall, the committee had a name, Four Spirits, taken from the title of Birmingham native Sena Jeter Naslund’s 2003 novel about the events of 1963. Isom said that he and Naslund are friends, and that she readily agreed to let the committee take its name from her book.
By mid-December, the committee had a sculptor, and Elizabeth MacQueen was the only female of six artists who sent in a submission in response to ads in Weld requesting proposals. She has lived and worked in such far-flung locations as Thailand, Italy, California and Mexico, and she happened to be home on a visit when her friend Hank Black showed her one of the Weld ads and suggested the Four Spirits project was a natural for her.
The 64-year-old MacQueen, who grew up in Mountain Brook but had distanced herself from her native state partly because of the violence of the Civil Rights era, readily agreed. But there was just one problem: the submission deadline was four days away. When she prepares a proposal for a sculpture, she usually needs about four weeks. With help from Black’s wife Martha, MacQueen went into overdrive, and made the deadline with two hours to spare.
“For this to come around when I was passing through, I just went, ‘Oh my God, this was meant for me to do. It’s mine,’” MacQueen said. “And I told Chervis that.”
The committee chose three jurors to review the proposals. McKinstry was one of the jurors. Jefferson County Circuit Judge Helen Shores Lee, the daughter of civil rights attorney Arthur Shores, was another. The third juror was local businessman Larry Thornton, who does acclaimed pencil portraits of Martin Luther King Jr. and other notable black Americans. The panel opted for MacQueen’s proposal, which depicts what she describes as “innocence at the peak of life.” She has tinkered with it a little since its acceptance, but it will still “be full of emotion and movement,” as she said in the written part of her presentation. And the girls will be as true to life as she can make them.
“I want it to be them,” MacQueen said. “I want it to be authentic.”
When complete, the sculpture will show the four girls on or around a bench. One of them, Denise McNair, is jumping to touch six doves that are heading skyward, while Addie Mae Collins is fixing the bow at the back of Denise’s dress. Cynthia Wesley is depicted as reading her favorite book, possibly the Bible, while Carole Robertson is walking away but looking back toward her friends and gesturing.
“She’s going like, ‘Come on,’” MacQueen said.
The doves not only represent the lives of the four girls but also two other lives lost on the day of the bombing in separate, tragic incidents – those of Virgil Ware and Johnny Robinson. Ware, 13, was shot by a white teen as he was riding on the handlebars of his brother’s bicycle. Robinson, 16, was shot in the back by a police officer. Published accounts state he and other youths had been throwing rocks at a car displaying a Confederate flag.
McKinstry said she and her fellow jurors were drawn to the warmth and loving feeling in both MacQueen’s written proposal and her sketch of the sculpture and that visitors will be drawn to the finished product for the same reasons.
“When Dr. King gave the eulogy for these girls, he said to us that the shedding of innocent blood is always redemptive, and that the blood of these girls might well…serve as that redemptive force for Birmingham, for Alabama and for the rest of the nation,” she said. “And I think that what is portrayed there is the innocence of the girls but also the innocent blood that was shed and…we don’t really see the horror of all of that. We see, I think, the redemption in the form of the love, the carefreeness, the playfulness, all of the good things, the good qualities of the spirit, of what we like to see in people, you know?”
MacQueen said that the overall sculpture will be wheelchair accessible, and that there will be space on the bench on which visitors can sit and be close to the girls.
Birmingham Mayor William Bell, who likes MacQueen’s proposal, said the finished monument will fill a void in Kelly Ingram. Isom said it also will bring a needed contrast, since the dominant monuments in the park largely reflect the the harshness of the Civil Rights era, depicting the imprisonment of demonstrators and the violence used against them.
“I think if and when this is actually put in the ground over there, that it…would truly soften the park in many ways,” Isom said.
Board members say as they have spoken about the project to groups and individuals, both locally and elsewhere, people have asked how they can help make the monument a reality. Isom said the committee expects to receive contributions from businesses and foundations, “but more than that, I’d like for this to be an appeal to ordinary people to send in $25 or whatever they can send toward this to feel like they’re a part of it.
“I want the people of Birmingham to feel they’re a part of this expression of gratitude and reconciliation and continued sympathy for these poor girls who did nothing wrong but lost their lives in a movement that was a great deal bigger than themselves,“ Isom added. “In many respects, they’re the four spirits of Birmingham. They gave it all to create a better place for all of us.”
Asked what she hoped the sculpture would accomplish, Martha Bozeman said she wanted it not only to remind people of the girls and their sacrifice and the events of ‘63, but also to inspire “everyone who sees it…to want to give as much positive effort and life to living as they possibly can.
“We want this be a project that all people can participate in and feel proud of.”
Those wishing to donate to the Four Spirits project can do so online through the Community Foundation of Greater Birmingham. You also can mail donations to the foundation at 2100 First Avenue North, Suite 700, Birmingham AL 35203-4223. Be sure to put “Four Spirits” on the check’s memo line.