As a college student in the late 90s, I was not passionate about learning.
Sports, friends, girls and fun filled up my schedule, leaving little time for acquiring knowledge. I earned my degree, but did not learn nearly as much as I could have.
In the last several years, however, my curiosity and desire to learn have been sparked by the people around me. I’ve been involved in cross-cultural ministry since the fall of 2014, first in a different country and now in a different city. It has been a journey of having my eyes opened to the beauty of other cultures and realizing how God is already at work among people who are different than me.
Recently I was chosen to participate in a Civil Rights Pilgrimage. I joined two of my co-workers and 16 strangers on a journey to the Alabama cities of Birmingham, Selma, Montgomery and Tuskegee.
At the corner of 6th Avenue and 16th Street in Birmingham, we found ourselves nearly surrounded by historical sites. On the Southeast is Kelly Ingram Park which is filled with statues commemorating aspects of the Civil Rights movement. The Southwest quadrant is the Civil Rights Institute. On the Northwest corner is the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church.
Our first stop was the Civil Rights Institute. I discovered many names, faces and events that were new to me. I remember feeling a bit ashamed at my ignorance but felt inspired to study and learn as much as I could.
Eventually I came to the exhibit dedicated to the terrorist attack on the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church. This exhibit is strategically placed near windows that allow you to see the actual church across the street. I had heard about this bombing before and how it had killed four young girls. However, several facts surrounding the attack were new to me.
I learned the names and ages of the girls - Addie Mae Collins (top left) was 14; Carole Robertson (bottom right) was 14, Denise McNair (bottom left) was 11 and Cynthia Wesley (top right) was 14.
I also learned the date of the attack - September 15, 1963.
I stared at the date for some time - probably not minutes, but long enough to realize I was staring. My heartbeat and my breathing became noticeable and my mind was reeling.
I was born on September 15, 1976 - a difference of exactly 13 years.
Only 13 years.
While walking through the Civil Rights Institute and seeing black and white photos, I was transported back in time. Even though I knew better, I felt as though the events of the Civil Rights Movement had happened at least 50-75 years before I was born. The years separating me from those four little girls were stretched to twice, three or four times their actual length.
Being hit with the relative proximity of this tragedy shook me.
Questions overtook my mind as I stared at the date of the bombing. How did I not know the date of this attack? Was it really just 13 years before I was born? What would Addie Mae, Carole, Denise and Cynthia be doing today if they had not been murdered? How many others were killed during the Civil Rights movement?
I pictured the day of my birth, but not what was happening where I was born. I imagined the homes of the girls’ families. I saw the parents of Addie Mae, Carole, Denise and Cynthia waking up and not wanting to get out of bed. They didn’t want to face another anniversary, another flood of emotions, more questions from reporters and others wanting to memorialize their daughters. They were still devastated because their little girls were gone, and even though more than a decade had passed, the pain was still fresh.
I thought of my own children, my 15-year-old daughter and 13-year-old son. The 13 years that have passed since my son was born have gone by in a flash. But for the parents of Addie Mae, Carole, Denise and Cynthia, 13 years probably felt like a crushing lifetime and each new day another year added on top of that.
Why didn’t I know? Why didn’t anyone tell me? How is it possible that I have celebrated 41 birthdays on September 15 and never learned the significance of that date?
There are two answers to these questions and each is equally disturbing.
America doesn’t think the deaths of Addie Mae, Carole, Denise and Cynthia at the hands of white supremacists merited mention.
Either that, or my own importance and privilege have made me apathetic to history and blind to the pain of others.
Or maybe it is both.
Addie Mae Collins
Their names and lives are significant, not just because of how they died but because of how they were created. The Creator of the Universe, the one we call God, created each of them in His image. Those little girls with dark skin were a perfect reflection of our Heavenly Father. God made Addie Mae, Carole, Denise and Cynthia exactly as He intended them to be. He had a purpose in mind for each of those girls. He wanted the rest of the world to know Him better when they met Addie Mae, Carole, Denise and Cynthia.
That’s why their deaths are significant enough to be included in every single historical account. Significant enough to remember September 15, 1963, the same way we remember September 11, 2001.
My birthdays will be different from now on. I’ll still celebrate another year of life because I think that’s what God would want. After all, each day is a gift from Him and it’s a good practice to celebrate regularly. However, my birthday will also include a time of remembrance, mourning and lament as I acknowledge the image of God in Addie Mae, Carole, Denise and Cynthia that was taken away from us by hatred.
This pilgrimage has left me with more questions than answers.
What happened to the image of God in those who killed Addie Mae, Carole, Denise and Cynthia? Those men were also created as a reflection of our Heavenly Father. How did hatred and white supremacy so fill them that they couldn’t see God’s image in black people?
Do we see the image of God in people of color? In immigrants and refugees? In anyone who is different from us?
Has hatred, pride, greed or comfort so filled us that we can no longer see the image of God in ourselves?
We are all created in the image of God. We all display unique parts of our Heavenly Father and without those unique parts we can’t possibly know God. We were intended to complement each other in order to reflect who God is. It’s not enough to see each other as valuable; we must start to see each other as necessary.
Today Addie Mae Collins, Carole Robertson, and Cynthia Wesley would be 68, and Denise McNair would be 66. I wish I could have known them because through them, I would better know God.