It was 50 years ago this week that I fell madly in love with Denise McNair.
That love was unrequited. If you don’t immediately recognize the name Denise McNair, perhaps you will if it’s mentioned with three others.
Addie Mae Collins, Carole Robertson and Cynthia Wesley.
Those were the “four little girls” killed in the Sept. 15, 1963 bombing of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Ala.
Collins, Robertson and Wesley were all 14 years old. McNair (pictured above, first from the left) was 11, the same age I was on Sept. 15, 1963.
The deaths of those four girls hit me hard, as I suspect they did everybody else in Black America. I’d like to think white America reacted the same way, but my guess is the deaths of McNair, Collins, Robertson and Wesley didn’t have quite the same impact.
Several years ago, editors at Life magazine got the bright idea to put out a special issue. The topic? Greatest crimes of the 20th century.
Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Michael Vick’s killing some dogs made that list. The bombing of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church – and the murders of McNair, Collins, Robertson and Wesley – didn’t.
When those editors at Life magazine met to discuss their decision, you can bet there was nary a black face in the room.
Probably because we were the same age, little Denise’s death hit me harder than the others. That, and the photo that ran of her after her way-too-soon death.
Denise McNair was one gorgeous 11-year-old girl. I looked at her picture and fell in love immediately. Then the rage came.
For a while I hated all white people for what happened in Birmingham, Ala., on Sept. 15, 1963. My hatred never abated, but soon it shifted from all white people to one white man in particular.
That would be George Corley Wallace, the governor of Alabama when the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church bombing occurred.
Since the murders occurred on his watch as governor, I figured it was Wallace that bore ultimate responsibility. But the man was guilty of much more than failing to bring the killers of the “four little girls” to justice.
Wallace contributed to the climate of violence that was so deadly that Birmingham got the nickname “Bombingham.”
After he was elected governor, the man stood before the entire state and uttered those infamous words “segregation today, segregation tomorrow and segregation forever.”
The man stood in the university doorways to prevent black students from enrolling in state schools. All these acts served to only embolden the racist, Ku Klux Klan elements bent on murder and mayhem.
Five years after the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church bombing, Wallace ran for president. His platform?
Law and order.
I kid you not. The man from the state with the city nicknamed “Bombingham,” the man from the state where, five years after not a soul had been arrested for the bombing of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church, stood before the country and told everyone he was the guy to bring law and order to the country.
This fool couldn’t even bring law and order to his own state, but enough Americans bought into his spiel that Wallace split the vote in the 1968 election.
He and his running mate, Gen. Curtis “Bomb North Vietnam Back To The Stone Age” Lemay,” got nearly 14 percent of the vote.
Democrat Hubert Humphrey, the incumbent vice president, got 42.72 percent. Republican Richard Nixon, the eventual winner, got 43.42 percent.
Nearly 10 million Americans voted for Wallace in 1968. Each of those ballots was an insult to the very memory of Denise McNair, Addie Mae Collins, Carole Robertson and Cynthia Wesley.
So yes, 50 years ago this week I did indeed fall in love with Denise McNair. I’d like to think that love was greater than my hatred of Wallace, but the man made it difficult.
In his later years, Wallace supposedly underwent some sort of conversion, one that several black leaders bought. Black folks were now cool with him, Mr. “Segregation now, segregation tomorrow and segregation forever” proclaimed.
I didn’t buy it, not for a nanosecond. I didn’t want to hear from Wallace that black folks were cool with him.
I wanted to hear him admit how his own rhetoric and actions led to the death of that little girl I fell hopelessly in love with 50 years ago this week.