I was watching Spike Lee’s documentary 4 Little Girls when the verdict in the Trayvon Martin case was handed down. An alert flashed on my phone—Zimmerman found not guilty—and in an instant I was brought back from images of a bombed-out Birmingham church in the segregated sixties to the supposedly post-racial present. But even as I paused the DVD about terrorism in Alabama and began to scour the Internet for information on self-defense law in Florida, I had an uncanny feeling that no time had passed at all.
Five decades separate the deaths of these five African American young people, but now they are suspended together in the eternal present of memory and mourning: Trayvon forever seventeen in his hoodie and sneakers, with Addie Mae, Carole, Cynthia, and Denise, a few years younger, in their Sunday dresses and polished patent leather shoes. They represent all the other children, living and dead, whose bodies have been put in harm’s way as Americans continue to battle over whose rights deserve protection, and what it means to be safe and free.
They are powerful public symbols—poster children for a movement. But they are also unique and irreplaceable and ordinary and loved, like every other person in the world. And how we remember them matters, in part because it affects how we think and act in relation to the ongoing political battles that took their lives.
It’s hard work to mourn and remember real children, and it’s tempting to take short cuts—to idealize or demonize, or turn them into something simple. In the aftermath of Trayvon’s death, some preferred to remember him smiling sweetly in a Hollister shirt or looking soulfully out of his hoodie, while others insisted on an image of him sullen and shirtless, giving the camera the finger, blowing smoke. Trayvon was represented as either angelic or gangsta; he was rarely recognized as a complicated and quotidian teenage boy.
This is nothing new. In Carry Me Home, her epic account of the Civil Rights Movement in Birmingham, Diane McWhorter recounts an apocryphal story that circulated in white Birmingham after the bombing: the four girls supposedly died because they were skipping Sunday school to smoke in the bathroom (as if illicit smoking could ever mitigate murder). Meanwhile many of us have come to think of the girls as the pre-pubescent saints with halos depicted in a memorial stained-glass window, their individuality and spark subsumed into a glow of collective innocence.
The problem with these ways of remembering is that they can reinforce an unstated but widely-held belief that victims of racism must be innocent and/or dead in order to matter. And they can perpetuate an old idea that has haunted American politics from Little Eva to Emmett Till to Newtown: that there is something redemptive about the death of children; that maybe children have to die in order for society to change.
I first saw 4 Little Girls as a graduate student in a class on the Civil Rights Movement, and I’ve seen it many times since, twice in Birmingham, and once before a visit with Chris McNair, Denise’s father, during a Civil Rights Movement tour of Alabama. I’ve taught it twice in seminars on religion in America, and this summer I taught it in a course on American documentary film. I was grateful to be discussing it with my students the day after the verdict. Although we didn’t talk much about Trayvon, Lee’s film gave us a way to process our reactions and put them in context.
As we approach September 15 and the fiftieth anniversary of the bombing of 16th Street Baptist Church, I keep returning to 4 Little Girls, not just because it is a beautiful cinematic elegy (which it is) but because it helps us think through these urgent problems of how to think and feel and act in the wake of these deaths. An Academy-Award nominated film that is also a labor of love more than ten years in the making, 4 Little Girls provides us a model of ethical memory for our time.
The first and most miraculous thing the film does is to step away from the public narrative for a while and give the girls’ stories back to the people who love them. These people proceed to bring the girls back to life, or as close to life as they will ever again be on this earth. Lee films the family and friends in intimate close-ups, their expressive faces filling half the screen, and for almost an hour we listen to stories from the time before the bomb.
“Very aggressive, very feisty,” says Chris McNair about his daughter Denise, evoking a strong, vivid girl who liked to ask tough questions and pose for the camera. “To know Addie is to love Addie,” says Addie Mae’s sister Janie Gaines in a soft sweet voice; “she was just a funny girl, a sweet peaceful girl. She just liked to make peace with people and people to be at peace around. ” “I was younger than my classmates and I was a fat little young boy, so some people didn’t want to be bothered with me. Cynthia would be bothered with me, she would. She would take time,” remembers Cynthia’s friend Freeman Hrabowski. We hear about Carole and her sister throwing popcorn and ice cubes down on white people from the segregated balcony of the movie theater, and about Denise orchestrating an elaborate funeral for a dead bird.
By the time the dynamite detonates and the concrete shatters and we see each girl’s body naked and dead on a slab, we are in a position to feel a fraction of what their death means. We live in a culture with an endless appetite for violent images and we are losing our capacity for shock, but Lee forces us to witness the morgue photographs with the heavy ache of grief. In death, the girls are not broken corpses or sacred symbols or historic catalysts for civil rights legislation; they are Addie Mae, Carole, Cynthia, and Denise, and we can hardly bear to look.
The most powerful moments in Lee’s film are built on this practice of productive discomfort. Every time I teach the film, students comment on two scenes in particular that are prolonged far beyond our ability to watch them with ease. In one scene, Cynthia’s sister Shirley begins to tell the story of Cynthia’s last morning and then breaks down mid-sentence. She covers her face, silenced by sobs, and the camera zooms in instead of cutting away. She can’t speak. We can’t comfort her. There is nothing we can do but witness the grief that will never end. As the slow seconds pass, the film refuses to resolve this uneasiness for us.
In another unnerving scene, former Alabama governor George Wallace, at the end of his life and seeking redemption, tells us that he always meant well. He repeatedly summons his African American aide into the frame, insisting, “My best friend is a black friend. Here is one my best friends right here.” We squirm as the most famous defender of segregation seeks absolution by virtue of his physical proximity to a black person and his self-professed good intentions.
Lee refuses to let Wallace and well-meaning white people off the hook. The bombers were evil, yes, but they were merely finishing the job that structural racism had begun. In yet another devastating scene, Chris McNair describes having to explain to his daughter why she can’t eat at a segregated lunch counter; he finally has to tell her what her mother Maxine calls “the sage old story” of racism. He says, “I want you to know that night couldn’t have been any more painful than seeing her laying up there with the rock smashed in her head, then to tell her that I couldn’t buy her that sandwich down there because she was black. [It was] as if a whole world of betrayal fell on her at that moment.”
Children who are violently killed are the exception, but in a racist society every black child still has to be educated into this same world of betrayal. After Trayvon’s death, many parents spoke and wrote about “the talk” they have with their black sons, explaining to them that they can’t move freely through the world as other young people do. In 4 Little Girls, Lee shows us that the everyday experience of social inequality can be just as devastating as the random acts of violence that dramatize it.
Lee doesn’t begin the film with the bombing, and he doesn’t end with it either. Fully half the story he tells is about the struggle for justice in Birmingham both before the bombing and after it. When former Attorney General Bill Baxley describes how he listened to the record of Joan Baez singing “Birmingham Sunday” every day as he painstakingly put together a case against “Dynamite” Bob Chambliss, Lee hints at how the unrelenting disquiet of grief can prompt an obsessive work for justice. But Chambliss’s eventual conviction in 1977 is not presented as a resolution. At the time the film was made in 1997, Lee tells us, black churches were being burned throughout the South.
When I visited 16th Street Baptist Church a few years ago I learned that new cracks from the impact of the bombing are still appearing in the foundation 50 years later. As I remember the bombing this week, I am trying to feel the tremors and aftershocks in the world around me—to see the places that are cracked and crumbling, and to feel the ground still trembling under the impact of injustice. And as I try to remember these girls I never knew, I am trying to stay in the terrible uneasiness of their loss as long as I can, and to join in the grief and struggle that continues with their story.
Briallen Hopper is a Lecturer in the Yale English Department and Faculty Fellow at the University Church in Yale. She has written about American religion for the Huffington Post, Killing the Buddha, and the Los Angeles Review of Books.