The 50th Anniversary of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church Bombing

Sculpttor Elizabeth MacQueen working at Mussi Artworks Foundry in Berkeley, California.

Sculpttor Elizabeth MacQueen working at Mussi Artworks Foundry in Berkeley, California.

When you think of the state of Alabama, college football, cotton fields, demagogues, American Idol winners and Nascar come to mind. To this day, when you mention Birmingham, images of fire hoses and police dogs define our city’s past.

Fifty years ago on September 15, 1963, four girls preparing for Sunday morning church service died at the hands of white supremacists. I wasn’t even born yet. I certainly never studied this horrific event in school, learning the full impact of the civil rights movement as a college student viewing Birmingham from an outsider’s perspective. I only recently learned my mother wanted to join the march in Selma but, as a suburban housewife and mother of three boys, she was too afraid, worried about her safety.

That pivotal year, Birmingham-born sculptor Elizabeth MacQueen was 14 years old, the same age as three of the four girls killed in the church bombing. Growing up in Mountain Brook, only a few miles from downtown, MacQueen, also lived a world apart from the violent demonstrations. At the time, MacQueen remembers, “I was told never to go over the mountain.” Red Mountain, that is, referred to by Paul Hemphill, author of Leaving Birmingham: Notes of a Native Son, as “the Berlin Wall.”

Today on the eve of the fiftieth anniversary of the bombing, across the street in Kelly Ingram Park, a statue of Martin Luther King Jr. and many other civil rights monuments evoke these darker times. One monument still remains missing. Not for much longer.

In the spring of 2011, a Birmingham attorney (I’m proud to say my father-in law) was stunned to learn a monument to the four little girls didn’t exist when he read Carol McKinstry’s memoir, While the World Watched. He picked up the phone and called McKinstry, one of the survivors of that fateful day.

Their conversation led to a coalition of black and white individuals who commissioned Elizabeth MacQueen to create bronze, life-size statues in honor of Cynthia Wesley, Carole Robertson, Addie Mae Collins, and Denise McNair.

Now half a century later, an unlikely group has come together in a spirit of gratitude and reconciliation to commemorate four little girls whose untimely deaths have made the city once known as “Bombingham” a better place.

On Sept. 14, at 4:00 pm on the eve of the 50th anniversary of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church bombing, MacQueen’s commemorative sculpture will be unveiled in Kelly Ingram Park, located catty corner to the church and adjacent to the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute. Learn more about the event and the sculpture at

The corner where the Four Spirits monument will be placed.

The corner where the Four Spirits monument will be placed.

Ballad of Birmingham


“Mother dear, may I go downtown
Instead of out to play,
And march the streets of Birmingham
In a Freedom March today?”
“No, baby, no, you may not go,
For the dogs are fierce and wild,
And clubs and hoses, guns and jails
Aren’t good for a little child.”

“But, mother, I won’t be alone.
Other children will go with me,
And march the streets of Birmingham
To make our country free.”


“No, baby, no, you may not go,
For I fear those guns will fire.
But you may go to church instead
And sing in the children’s choir.”

She has combed and brushed her night-dark hair,
And bathed rose petal sweet,
And drawn white gloves on her small brown hands,
And white shoes on her feet.

The mother smiled to know that her child
Was in the sacred place,
But that smile was the last smile
To come upon her face.

For when she heard the explosion,
Her eyes grew wet and wild.
She raced through the streets of Birmingham
Calling for her child.

She clawed through bits of glass and brick,
Then lifted out a shoe.
“O, here’s the shoe my baby wore,
But, baby, where are you?”













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