Today is my play big brother Walter Dallas’ birthday. A brilliant director, playwright and composer, I was so glad to talk with him this morning. Today it has also been reported that Sandra Bland’s family has reached a settlement in the wrongful death lawsuit they filed against Texas police officers (Read: Sandra Bland’s Family Reaches $1.9 Million Dollar Settlement). I can only say that her family fought valiantly for changes to be made at the jail where Sandra Bland died. Her family might have gotten a bigger settlement if Black women’s lives mattered half as much as the lip service we often hear that says that we actually matter. Talk is cheap.
Today is also the 53rd anniversary of Birmingham, Alabama’s 16th Street Baptist Church bombing that snuffed out the lives of four young black girls named Cynthia Morris (later called Cynthia Wesley), Carole Robertson, Denise McNair, and Addie Mae Collins. Addie Mae’s sister Sarah Collins Rudolph survived the blast, but lost an eye and her sister. Two black boys were killed the same day near the church in additional acts of racial violence; they were Johnny Robinson and Virgil Ware. So how does one celebrate the birthday of a wonderful director, playwright, composer and all-around great guy while remembering the deaths of our children, and of those who died needlessly in police custody and much too soon?
On the surface no visible correlation exists between any of these events. Yet, a birthday is often a milestone to look back at what one has accomplished and what one wants to accomplish in the years ahead. These deaths, however, are painful reminders of the work still ahead of us, a reminder to pause and appreciate those among the living for who they are and what they do because no day is promised to any of us.
It is for me also a reminder of all those butterflies, the white and yellow clouded sulfur butterflies, and the orange and black monarch butterflies, that have followed me for the last two weeks, in my yard, in the street, and in parking lots that remind me of renewal and transformation, and that those who live with us for a long time and those who leave us too soon will return again. Àṣé!”
There were four little Black girls whose lives were snuffed out on Sunday morning, September 15, 1963 when a bomb planted by racist White terrorists exploded in the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama. They were, Denise McNair who was the youngest at age 11, Carol Robertson aged 14, Cynthia Wesley** aged 14 (**Real and Birth name is “CYNTHIA MORRIS”), and Addie Mae Collins was aged 14. When that bomb went off, most Black Birmingham citizens and most Black Americans forgot about the “March on Washington,” held a mere eighteen days earlier on August 28. Not long after the blast, all hell broke loose. The New York Times headline on the following day read (click here for article): “Birmingham Bomb Kills 4 Negro Girls in Church; Riots Flare; 2 Boys Slain.“
Birmingham, then nicknamed “Bombingham,” had an ugly history it would take decades to live down. A middle class neighborhood in the city had suffered so many bombings that it was nicknamed “Dynamite Hill,” because angry Whites bombed homes to stop Black people from moving into the area. Dynamite Hill was the neighborhood that honed and developed future Phi Beta Kappa scholar, radical activist, and author Angela Davis. Yet, that is a story for another essay. There are those of us, however, who think the story of what and who we lost on that fateful Sunday morning deserves its place in all the national narratives of American history. I am one of those people; so is actor and activist Erich McMillan-McCall.
My friend, Erich is the founder of Project1Voice, an organization devoted to preserving Black theatre companies and our important historical legacies. I should add that not only is he a multitalented performance artist with credits on Broadway, national stages, and television, he is also a visionary. I say he is a visionary, however, with a very important acknowledgement of the type of communities that both of us grew up in as children. Black women, he emphasizes, were at the center of these communities. Yet, in several of our usual marathon-long telephone conversations, he has lamented that he is bothered by how Black women’s voices are not only muted or unacknowledged in the historical narratives, but also on the stage, and in the arts.
Erich and I are products of a time when to be young and Black and living in the American South did not necessarily mean that everywhere you went there was danger; what it tended to mean was the Black community in which you grew up was supportive, filled with a great deal of love and encouragement. There were threats to our wellbeing, to be sure. Yet, those threats largely came from outside the neighborhoods where we lived. As much as some very sympathetic White liberal folks and some younger Black Americans have erroneously assumed otherwise, our Black parents and elders made sure we had normal childhoods with school, church, piano lessons, baseball games, concerts, plays, parties, and family picnics. They did all of this for us in spite of the racism and the perpetual threat of (and often real) racial violence that characterized much of life for us during the 1960s and 1970s. Erich understands this type of upbringing.
His proactive approach, that provides greater visibility to financially struggling Black theatre companies while engaging educational, civic, and political organizations in this collective struggle for artistic, political, educational, economic, and historical viability is not exactly a new way of doing things. The Black community that I grew up in was filled with folks who could sing, dance, act, organize, who taught school, practiced medicine, ran businesses, and helped elect Black people to political office—This is what we were/are. I loved this Black community, and the activism and the theatre it produced. I still live in the neighborhood my family moved to when I was around the age of eleven. It has not entirely lost those same qualities that it had during my childhood. However, I fear that these types of communities become more rare with each passing decade. At the same time, I am gratified and encouraged by Erich’s embrace of the old collaborative efforts of our neighborhoods and organizations that we remember about our childhoods; and his insistence that those qualities can be modified and used to great affect in the information age. I hope this is the beginning of a new trend.
Sunday, September 15, 2013, is the 50th anniversary of one of our worst tragedies. On this date, Project1Voice, in collaboration with Howard University, African Continuum Theatre Company, the Duke Ellington School of the Arts, and the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts will present a reading of the play “Four Little Girls,” written by Christina Ham, directed by Phylicia Rashad. It will stream live online at 6:00 PM EST via the Kennedy Center’s website.
Targeted toward young audiences, this will be one of those wonderful opportunities to sit down in front of your computer screens with your children and your friends to watch this important piece of theatre and history—Free of Charge. You should also check for viewing parties around the country. Additionally, over thirty Black theatre companies around this nation will be presenting “Four Little Girls” simultaneously on the fiftieth anniversary of this national tragedy.
Erich and I both remember neighborhoods where middle class and working class Black families looked out for each other and each other’s children. These facts, however, are precisely why the slaughter of Denise McNair, Carol Robertson, Cynthia Wesley** (**born as “Cynthia Morris,” but cited in the historiography and in most news reports as “Cynthia Wesley“) and Addie Mae Collins was so devastating to Birmingham’s Black community and other Black communities throughout the nation. The reading of this play is not only a way to honor these dead children, but to also recall and remember the kind of stable and warm neighborhoods where all of them and us grew up. Let us honor these little girls by going home again. Peace.
** Shortly after this blog was published, I, Leslye Joy Allen, was contacted by Fate Morris, the brother of the young girl commonly known in historical and news records as “Cynthia Wesley.” Fate Morris insisted that his sister’s real name is “CYNTHIA DIANE MORRIS,” and that authorities recorded her name incorrectly the day of the explosion. Mr. Morris also informed me that he has decided to accept the Congressional Medal for his sister. Originally he and Sarah Collins Rudolph (sister of Addie Mae Collins) had declined this medal. Please read the following article about the survivors of this tragedy: “Survivor of ’63 Bombing Seeks Funds”**
Please join Project1Voice‘s commemoration of the lives of these four little girls: