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Birney Imes: Four little girls


Birney Imes



Thursday night it was my good fortune to see Spike Lee's heart-rending documentary, "4 Little Girls." 


The screening was the second item in a remarkably dense schedule of events Dream 365 organizers have programed over six days, beginning with a spelling bee on Wednesday and culminating tomorrow with a prayer breakfast. 


In his film, Lee examines the civil rights struggle in Birmingham through the stories of the four young girls killed in the 1963 terrorist bombing of 16th Street Baptist Church. The girls were among 26 children in the church's basement attending Sunday school when 19 sticks of dynamite triggered by a timer exploded. 


While a student in film school at New York University, Lee approached Chris McNair, the father of 11-year-old Denise McNair, one of the children killed in the blast, about doing the film. McNair said no. Ten years passed. During that time Lee became an accomplished (and renowned) filmmaker while continuing his research of the bombing and the surrounding events. 


When he asked again, McNair, who had warmed up to the idea, was impressed with Lee's depth of understanding and agreed to cooperate. 


The film spends a lot of time with siblings, parents and childhood friends fondly remembering the little girls. But it also offers through photographs and newsreels, a visceral sense of the civil rights struggle in Birmingham. By that I mean plenty of fire hoses and attack dogs turned on peaceful civilians. Lee interviewed many of the foot soldiers of the movement, journalists, historian Taylor Branch, and Bill Baxley, who as attorney general successfully prosecuted Robert Chambliss 14 years after the crime. 


The real-life villains are worthy of Shakespeare or the Grimm Brothers: Commissioner of Public Safety (a misnomer if there ever was one) "Bull" Connor; Chambliss, the first of four Klansmen to be indicted for the church bombing and George Corley Wallace, the banty rooster of a governor who as much as anyone fanned the fires of racial animus. Wallace is also shown at the end of his life, decrepit, almost inaudible, repeatedly referring to his visibly uncomfortable black retainer as his best friend. 


CBS News anchor Walter Cronkite, then called "the most trusted man in America," said the country was slowly coming to grips with the civil rights question, but it was the death of those four little girls, along with Martin Luther King's "I Have a Dream Speech" the month before, that galvanized the nation. 


Images of police brutality appeared on the front pages of the world's newspapers. A group of Birmingham Rotarians happened to be in Japan at a convention when a photograph of Birmingham police attacking demonstrators appeared on the front page of Tokyo newspapers. This has got to stop, the Rotarians said to one another. And the film gives the sense that much of white Birmingham watched helplessly as extremists ruled the day. 


Though it was not without tragedy and turmoil, this country's coming to grips with segregation was a remarkable instance of self-governance.  


Yet today, 50 years later, we live in a very different world, better in many respects, worse in others -- an epidemic of teen pregnancies, the fragmentation of families, an high incidence of high school drop outs, unemployment. A disproportionate number of these ills afflict the black community. 


Also, today, it could be argued, the challenges we face as a nation are just as daunting as they were in 1963, maybe even more so. The evil loomed large and obvious before us then. The challenges today are more insidious, with less obvious solutions: dysfunctional political institutions, runaway debt, polarization of society. 


As terrible as the murders of those little girls in Birmingham 50 years ago, their deaths were no less horrific that the children and teachers killed in Newtown, Conn., last month. Will those deaths have the same galvanizing effect as those in that Baptist Church on that Sunday morning? Will we enact laws to inhibit such violence? Can we put aside the partisan bickering and enact meaningful legislation to address the daunting issues before us? 


Or have we become as the people of the story in Genesis, lost in the babel of voices? 



Birney Imes III is the immediate past publisher of The Dispatch.


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