One day before the 50th anniversary of one of the most infamous events in Alabama history, statues of the four girls who lost their lives in that event were unveiled today to the world and to those who once knew them as living human beings.
The Four Spirits memorial pays tribute to Denise McNair, 11, and Addie Mae Collins, Carole Robertson and Cynthia Wesley, all 14, who were killed on the morning of September 15, 1963 while preparing for a service at the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church. The bronze and steel memorial, fashioned in four months by Birmingham-born sculptor Elizabeth MacQueen, stands at the northwest entrance to Kelly Ingram Park, across from the church. It is a softer addition to other sculptures in the park that for the most part reflect the harsh response of Birmingham authorities to the civil rights movement that changed the city – and, many say, the world — in 1963.
The memorial was unveiled this afternoon under a glaring sun before a crowd of about 1,000, including family members of each of the girls. Among those family members were the only surviving parents of one of the victims, Denise McNair’s father Chris and her mother Maxine. A former Jefferson County commissioner recently released for health reasons from a prison where he was serving time on public corruption charges, McNair watched intently as Mayor William Bell and others removed the covering from the part of the memorial in which Denise is featured, and his eyes seemed to gleam as he looked at the image of his daughter.
Asked what he thought the sculpture might achieve, McNair said in his trademark deep voice, “I don’t know. I don’t know what’ll it achieve, but I’m pleased with it.” Maxine McNair said she thought the memorial would achieve something good. Some of those who spoke during the day’s ceremony said the memorial itself was evidence of something good. Among them was the keynoter, the Rev. Joseph Lowery, former head of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.
Borrowing passages from the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s eulogy following the bombing, citing scripture and repeating the key verse from “What the World Needs Now is Love,” a 1965 hit song by Dionne Warwick, the 91-year-old Lowery said the lives of four girls had “served a glorious purpose in helping our nation turn from the aristocracy of color to the aristocracy of character…from a dark past to a bright future.”
The girls also had inspired Birmingham citizens to work together, “as brothers and sisters,” to bring about the memorial, Lowery added.
“We’re here today witnessing a community [working] together,” he said. “Yesterday, we moved under the color of darkness to sow seeds of hatred and destruction. Today, we move in the sunlight of God’s love to sow seeds of love and respect. How sweet it is to see the citizens of Birmingham engage in a common effort to serve the common good.”
The memorial’s title, Four Spirits, came from Birmingham-born writer Sena Jeter Naslund’s novel of the same name about the events of ’63. Naslund, who lives in Louisville, Kentucky, read a passage from the novel at today’s ceremony. Afterward, she said the event signified how much her hometown had changed for the better.
“I think this piece is a transcendent piece,” Naslund said. “It’s important to the history of Birmingham and, as an artistic product, it’s a wonderful tribute to those four girls and to that time, when so many people sacrificed so much.
“This is a different place now,” Naslund added. “I grew up here. I know what change is and it’s happened here.”
Almost as soon as it was unveiled, the 3,000 pound, two-piece memorial was engulfed by audience members, among them a blind man named Ted Nail who sought to touch it. Over and over, people took photos, or posed for photos alongside the memorial. A lot of the jostling and movement slowed when the crowd began singing “We Shall Overcome.”
Among those who made their way to the memorial was Addie Mae Collins’ sister, Sarah Collins Rudolph, who was injured in the church bombing.
Former U.S. Attorney Doug Jones, a member of the Four Spirits Committee who successfully prosecuted two of the three suspects in the bombing — Tommy Blanton in 2001 and Bobby Frank Cherry in 2002 — paid tribute to Rudolph in his remarks at the ceremony. Rudolph also is acknowledged in a small medallion on the side of a bench in the main sculpture of the memorial.
“I really love it,” she said.
The memorial consists of life-sized images of the slain girls in two sculptures. It also acknowledges Johnny Robinson and Virgil Ware, two young men shot and killed in separate racial incidents following the bombing. The main sculpture has three of the girls – Denise, Addie Mae and Cynthia — on a bench. While it has bulk, weighing in at about 2,500 pounds, it is also delicate, with a flock of six doves soaring above one end of the bench, and that bench has space to allow visitors to sit among the three girls. On Friday, workers with Garrison Steel Erectors from Pell City were brought in to put brackets on the legs of the bench to give the sculpture more stability.
As depicted in the memorial, each girl is doing something that MacQueen felt would reflect their personalities and potential. In the larger sculpture, Denise McNair, barefooted and standing on the balls of her bare feet, is reaching skyward into the 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, also barefooted, 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.
The nonprofit committee behind the Four Spirits memorial got going last year after Chervis Isom, a Birmingham attorney, read a passage in a memoir that noted the absence of a meaningful memorial to the four girls. That memoir, While the World Watched, was by Carolyn Maull McKinstry, who was in the Sixteenth Street church when the Ku Klux Klan-planted bomb went off. McKinstry, a minister who gave the invocation at today’s ceremony, knew Addie Mae, Carole, Cynthia and Denise, as well as the other church members who were injured in the 1963 bombing. She had been among the young people who had joined the movement earlier in the year and faced the fire hoses and police dogs represented in some of the other sculptures in Kelly Ingram. Isom said he called McKinstry and the conversation led to others and the formation of the committee, which hired MacQueen and set a target of $250,000 for the memorial.
Drew Langloh, president and CEO of United Way of Central Alabama and a member of the Four Spirits group, said the committee was close to hitting its target but would like to have some additional funds “for maintenance on the statues if there’s ever a need for it.”
Those who wish to give to the memorial can do so online at fourspirits1963.com.
The four girls have been honored and remembered on other occasions during this 50th anniversary year of the pivotal events in the civil rights movement in Birmingham. Earlier this week, they posthumously received the Congressional Gold Medal. The U.S. Treasury is selling bronze replicas of the medal.
The bombing will be officially commemorated on Sunday, the 50th anniversary of the attack. The day’s scheduled events include remarks at 12:30 p.m. by Attorney General Eric Holder and former Secretary of State (and Birmingham native) Condoleezza Rice at UAB’s Alys Stephens Performing Arts Center, followed by a reading of Christina M. Ham’s play Four Little Girls: Birmingham 1963.