The identities of the four little girls who died in the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing Sept. 15, 1963, have been lumped together to serve to reference a point in the struggle for civil rights. The girls came to represent the violence black people endured at the hands of the Ku Klux Klan and those who opposed racial equality during the 1960s. The Root sought to unravel that collective identity and bring attention to the amazingly ordinary lives these girls lived. Addie Mae Collins, 14; Carol Robertson, 14; Cynthia Wesley, 14; and Denise McNair, 11, had active roles in their schools and neighborhoods.
These girls, martyrs of the civil rights movement, could not have imagined their role in history, let alone conceive that they would one day become recipients of the Congressional Gold Medal. When they died, they were merely preparing for Sunday school at their local church.
Addie Mae Collins
Addie was an avid artist who had a knack for drawing “people real good,” her younger sister, Sarah Collins Rudolph, told People magazine. Rudolph was with Addie in the church basement when the explosion went off. Addie was killed instantly, while Sarah lost an eye when a piece of shattered glass got lodged into it.
According to the Birmingham News profile, Addie and her sisters were little businesswomen in their hometown. They would go door to door selling their mother’s handmade aprons (50 cents each) and potholders (35 cent each).
Her sister, Janie, remembers that Addie had a mean underhand pitch when playing ball, liked to play hopscotch and was often the peacemaker for arguments among her seven brothers and sisters.
Cynthia was the first adopted daughter of her parents and had an easy time making friends. She would invite friends over to her backyard to play music and entertain. She did really well in reading and math, was constantly laughing and “just full of fun all the time,” her friend Karen Floyd Savage recalls.
Even though Cynthia’s father was a volunteer patrolman for their neighborhood, Cynthia was fairly naive about the violent nature of the civil rights movement. “We didn’t really discuss things like that in depth,” Savage told the Birmingham News.
Carole loved to read and achieved As in all of her courses. She wore a leotard and pink ballet slippers to dance classes on Saturday, and didn’t mind when her friends practiced new hairstyles on her hair for fun. Carole walked with a purpose, and once told a friend that she had a desire to “preserve the past” and teach history in some capacity. Her extracurricular activities were plentiful: Jack and Jill of America, the Girl Scouts, the marching band, the choir and the science club.
Denise was quite the community organizer for causes dear to her heart. She organized fundraisers to fight muscular dystrophy and would get the other neighborhood children together to put on skits, dance routines and read poetry. Denise’s show became an annual event, with one relative prophesizing that Denise would be a teacher because she was “a leader from the heart.” When Denise would fantasize about her future with a friend, she would pretend to be some sort of doctor, either delivering babies or tending to children as a pediatrician.
Denise, a naturally inquisitive girl, didn’t understand segregation. She didn’t “understand why she couldn’t get a sandwich at the same counter as white children,” People magazine reported. Denise had thick, shoulder-length hair and a confidence about herself that her dentist never forgot: Denise would smile a lot for the camera, even when she lost her baby teeth.