One small girl remembers four who perished in blast

Following the Freedom Road

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June 15, 2005, BIRMINGHAM, Ala.

-- Going into this old Southern city, I knew the most emotionally difficult history for me would be the story of the four little girls who died in a bomb blast as they were preparing for Sunday School on Sept. 15, 1963.

Ervin Dyer, Post-Gazette
Marlissia, Ervin Dyer's 10-year-old niece, stands in front of the West Park sculpture in Birmingham that commemorates the deaths of four little girls killed in the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church bombing on Sept. 15, 1963.
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More on the story

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International Civil Rights Center

I knew their life and death would tug at me. Their smiling brown faces reminded me so much of my three sisters at those ages as they pressed, curled and polished themselves for Sunday church. So, I was prayed up to handle it.

I did not anticipate, however, that their stories would touch the soul of my niece, Marlissia, 10, who's making this journey with me.

Though Marlissia has memorized the full name of each girl -- Denise McNair, 11; Carolyn Robertson, 14; Addie Mae Collins, 14; and Cynthia Wesley, 14 -- she refers to all by their first name, as if they're longtime friends. On the days preceding the trip, she devoured each article she read about the little girls. She's spent countless minutes on the bus calculating the ages each would be had they lived. She writing her own stories about the life she imagines each would be leading.

She has both grieved and been awed by them. After visiting the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute, she grabbed my hand and led me across the street to the sun-splashed Freedom Walk, a park commemorating the lives of the children involved in the civil rights struggle.

The Sixteenth Street Baptist Church, where the girls were killed, sits across from the park, where there are tributes to the little girls.

On our "tour," Marlissia leads me to the tributes and I'm astounded by the insight and spiritual connection my little niece makes to the monuments.

In one corner of the park, there are four cement pillars. Each is broken. I tell her that was to symbolize the lives that were broken by the bomb. Yes, she tells me, she understands. Then she adds this nugget: "And, they stand for the hearts that were broken."

She then takes me to the center of the park, where there are four small pools, each overflowing.

She points and names each for one of the small murdered girls. The water, she says, are the tears for the girls.

All of the girls fascinate my niece, but none more so than Denise McNair.

Denise was one year older when she died than Marlissia is today. I think the closeness in age haunts my niece.

During our journey, she is comforted to discover more about who Denise was.

At the time she died, Denise was the only child of Maxine and Chris McNair. On Nov. 17, 1963, she would have turned 12. Today, she'd be 53.

When our group visits the art gallery owned by Chris McNair, Marlissia gets to talk to him. She also gets to visit the memorial he made for his daughter, which sits in the middle of the gallery.

From the items displayed there, Marlissia discovers a young girl who has many of the same passions she does: skating, drawing, writing and playing make-up.

Marlissia also sees the tiny white dress and tweed jacket that Denise last wore to church. Her patent leather shoes, blown off in the blast, are also on display. Marlissia's eyes tear up when she sees the remnants of the brick that pierced young Denise's skull in the blast. Her parents have kept the stone.

She asks McNair about the pain of living with his daughter's death.

He approaches her and shares with her that it was so painful, he didn't cry for three or four months after it happened.

When Marlissia tires of the weight of it all, she escapes by playing with two friends she's met on the trip: Annie and Liz, 10-year-old fraternal twins. They are white.

In the sunshine of 90-degree days, they share an easy laughter as they jump rope, eat ice cream and talk about hair.

I watch from a distance and realize that in a sad, strange way their simple friendship is a gift from Denise.

Marlissia is right to connect so strongly with the young girl she's never met. Denise's death forced America to confront some of its ugliest prejudices and in doing so, helped blacks and white to draw closer together.

In losing her life, Denise did for my niece all we can ever ask any friend to do, and that is to set us free.


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