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4 Little Girls [Movie Review]


4 Little Girls is a 1997 Spike Lee documentary about the 1963 bombing of Birmingham, Alabama’s 16th Street Baptist Church which resulted in the deaths of four little girls. On September 15, 1963, four girls aged 11 to 14, Addie Mae Collins, Denise McNair, Carole Robertson, and Cynthia Wesley were attending Sunday school when the blast from a bomb tore through the building. The device had been planted by four men who were members of a local chapter of the Ku Klux Klan. But while this particular event was unfortunate, the documentary shows that it was one in a series of domestic terrorist attacks aimed at intimidating Birmingham’s Black community into remaining second-class citizens.


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Show Notes

4 Little Girls’ intro features a song about the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing, “Birmingham Sunday” which was performed by Joan Baez. As the song plays, images of the four girls and their headstones are shown between clips from the Birmingham civil rights protests. I’d seen these clips as well as 4 Little Girls before. But this was the first time I noticed or maybe really paid attention to their headstones. Headstones typically list the person’s date of birth, as well as their date of death.

How young these girls were at their time of death has always been sad. Yet, looking at their dates of birth, I realized that these girls were born just a few years after my grandmother. My grandmother wasn’t living in America when the bombing occurred and passed away a few years ago. But my grandmother was just a few years older than these girls and had an opportunity to live a full life that still felt too short.

She lived well into adulthood, got married, had children as well as grandchildren, and got to see a bit of the world. Overall she had an opportunity to live out her life. To grow up and go from being an adolescent to a fully grown woman. Compare that to these four girls who were even younger but were cut down before they had an opportunity to truly begin living. It’s something that stood out and bothered me watching 4 Little Girls this time around.

Sitting and watching, really paying attention this time drove home that they weren’t just little girls but unfulfilled and unlived lives. Seeing those dates and thinking about my grandmother who was born just a few years earlier struck me a bit differently. To compare the two experiences. What these girls might have gone on to do in life, even if it was just a matter of them living. It drove home the point of how young they were and what was taken away from them when they barely had an opportunity to live before being murdered.

I like true crime but depending on the author, sometimes so much of the focus is placed on the victim’s death. It’s almost as though that one moment was all that mattered in the person’s life. And sometimes with history, we can lose track of the reality that we’re discussing moments and events in the lives of people who are humans. 4 Little Girls took an approach which I appreciated. The documentary doesn’t begin with the girls’ deaths or even their lives but rather the circumstances that led to the creation of their lives. There’s background on how the children’s parents met and their relationships formed.

Starting 4 Little Girls by telling the story of these children’s parents and how they met and came together, humanizes everyone involved. It expresses that their lives were more than their deaths. To be clear, their deaths were significant. But to their families, their parents, the people that knew and loved them before this tragic event they were already valued and cherished human beings. They were children who were growing up in these households where their parents had been taking care of and nourishing them from the time they were born. Before they were even born to be precise.

Their lives could not be boiled down to this one moment or defined by this tragic event. For their parents, what they mourned in losing these children was not just the potential futures that they would never have but the past childhoods that they had. All of the little memories and moments that they’d shared, experienced, and accumulated over the short years that they’d spent together.

In telling the story of these four little girls, it’s also necessary to tell the story of Birmingham. This provides some context for the conditions that existed which allowed for people to even consider carrying out such a heinous act. You need to look no further than the city’s infamous nickname from that time, “Bombingham”. Instead of jumping immediately into the bombing, Lee took the time to provide context and understanding of the climate for Black people living in Birmingham during this time.

Two White men spoke about the history of the city. One of the men was Arthur Hanes Jr., a circuit judge and defense attorney for Bob Chambliss who was ultimately convicted for the bombing. The other was Howell Raines, a New York Times Editor, who grew up in Birmingham during this time.

Raines, the editor, spoke about Birmingham being built up as a steel town and having this tradition of violence being used to break unions and fight against workers. On the economic front, the use of violence was quite entrenched in Birmingham society and labor relations. This combined with lynchings and other acts of racially motivated violence that were more frequently seen out in the rural areas. And so within Birmingham, you had these two histories of violence coexisting which were at their core based on using violence and intimidation to get one’s way.

I found myself shaking my head in disbelief while Hanes, the judge, was speaking. His retelling of events just seemed to be completely divorced from reality. His description of Birmingham as being a quiet peaceful place to raise a family in the 1950s shows how many people were and still are living in a bubble. All of these bombings and other acts of terror could be taking place on the other side of town while you remain blissfully and/or willingly ignorant of what’s going on.

We still see this in the present with these nostalgic folks calling for a return to the traditional values of the 1950s in efforts to “Make America Great Again” while being purposefully obtuse about the message behind “Black Lives Matter”. The question to be asked is, “Make America great again for who?” Because the 1950s sucked for Black people and a lot of other folks as well.

Hanes describes the 1950s as a peaceful time while images are being shown of Klan marches and rallies. The dates, times, and locations aren’t shown on the screen but it’s implied that the Klan demonstrations were taking place during the period being discussed. Viewing 4 Little Girls helps to show why it’s so important for Black people to tell our own history. Black people of the Civil Rights Era and even the decades since then, especially as time goes by and they get older, need to leave a testimony of their life and experience.

Sometimes reading history books or watching movies can provide a warped perspective when the story isn’t being told by or isn’t based on the experience of the person who lived through the event. For example, even with slave narratives and as we see here with the story of a moment from the civil rights movement, the realities of both periods can be skewed and minimized. In some texts, enslaved people have been referred to as servants and Jim Crow is boiled down to Black people sitting at the back of the bus. Oversimplification and the lack of context downplays and obscures the true nature of these two institutions making them seem as though things weren’t so bad.

In a sense, I think this is one of 4 Little Girls’ points of genius. The default for some filmmakers would be to only interview and include commentary that supports their narrative. But by including both viewpoints as well as images and data that serve as evidence to tell the truth of what was occurring, it makes plain that Hanes and others like him are out of touch at best and lying at worst.

Having family members and friends speak about what it was like to live in Birmingham during this time under Jim Crow offered a lot of insight. It allowed you to imagine to a degree what it felt like to live under these conditions. So much of what you could do, where you could go, and who you could be, was dictated by Jim Crow. There were all of these preconceived notions about what was acceptable or possible for Black people.

It seems like such a small thing now because it’s easy to take for granted being able to drink from a water fountain or use a public restroom. But I felt these parents’ pain in having to explain to their young children why they couldn’t have a simple thing like a sip of water or a burger. Imagine having to tell your child that they and children of their race, in particular, are not allowed to have or use these things. Without proper guidance, what would that do to a child’s self-esteem?

In the same vein that people aren’t born racist but it’s something that they learn, children also aren’t born knowing how to navigate these systems. Being born into Jim Crow, Black children would have to be indoctrinated with regards to what society deemed as being allowed or not allowed for them. So you as a parent would have to explain to a child why they were deemed unworthy to access these resources or visit specific venues. They were somehow deemed unworthy or defiling said item with their use or presence. As intended, this could have a tremendous impact on a child’s self-esteem.

While learning about Black history, I’ve noticed that often, Black people would be relegated to the most infertile or otherwise undesirable land or property. But even this disadvantage wasn’t enough of a calculated obstacle as any progress or improvements Black people made to the property would arouse anger. This was the case with an area in Birmingham that came to be known as “Dynamite Hill”. A local garbage dump was redeveloped and made available for Black people to build homes.

Black families moved to the area, built homes, and despite its origins, turned the once undesirable area into what sounds like a nice neighborhood. In response, White racists began to constantly bomb the neighborhood because they didn’t like the idea of Black people having nice homes. This resulted in the neighborhood being nicknamed “Dynamite Hill”. Keep in mind that this Black neighborhood began on what was originally a trash heap.

When discussing the wealth gap and why Black people have less than White people, it is rarely discussed that this was in part due to acts of sabotage and destruction. Envy and a false sense of superiority made racists feel like Black people didn’t deserve the little bit that they had. Segregation and the Jim Crow system were tools of white supremacy intended to make Black people feel less than. Any signs of financial success or other forms of progress on the part of Black people were a threat to the concept of Black inferiority and the aim of keeping Black people oppressed.

This is crazy because even if the land is cleaned up, who would choose to live on the site of a former dump if they had a choice to live elsewhere? Yet, even when Black people were making use of the scraps that they were given, there was still a problem. What was the desired situation here? That these Black residents have ramshackle houses and/or that they shouldn’t own homes at all? It’s like anything aside from being completely destitute was an affront to the status quo.

For all the ridiculous complaints of Black people not wanting to work and looking for handouts, here you have Black people who like most Black people are working, going about their daily lives, and not begging anyone for anything. Segregated, they mind their own business and develop their neighborhood but that’s a problem too.

Reverend Fred Shuttlesworth explains that with him and Bethel Baptist Church being involved with the Civil Rights Movement, he had to contend with bombings of the church and the rectory. It was insightful that after one bombing in particular a police officer pulled him aside to advise him against continuing his activism. This police officer was a Klansman which was par for the course as a healthy percentage of the overall police force were either themselves Klansmen or affiliated with the Klan.

Within that context you have to wonder, when things happen to Black people in this city and you are a police officer but also a member of or associate with individuals who are members of this racist organization, how can you be depended on to protect and serve without bias? Or are you just protecting and serving certain members of the community? When something happens, can you be trusted to carry out the duties and responsibilities of your position?

While this is a local situation, it points to the bigger reality and history of institutional racism. Here in the midst of all of this turmoil, when Black people are being attacked, the people they should be able to turn to for assistance, are very likely the same people or friends of the people who are committing these crimes.

In such an environment, there is no justice system or at least not an unbiased and impartial justice system. When the justice system and all of its institutions are built upon and have been infiltrated by racism, who can you as a Black person turn to for help or meaningful assistance? Is it realistic to assume that these people aren’t bringing their racist views and ideologies to work?

Chris McNair, Barbara McNair’s father, discusses Bull Connor and having to deal with this aggressive and heavy-handed racist. The personification of racism in Birmingham was vested within this man who served as the police commissioner and safety officer. McNair points out that a man like Connor could only get into his position and function in that role with the blessing and support of people who gave him and his racist ideology the okay.

In the decades since, Connor’s ideology is now viewed as being politically incorrect and rather gauche. He is now viewed as being on the wrong side of history. Connor was wrong but some people of that time now try to pretend as though he was an outlier and acting on his own. I’ve found that when things like this occur people try to distance themselves and downplay their involvement. I can’t say if the majority or minority of White Birmingham residents actively shared his beliefs. But at the very least they were complicit if they didn’t take a stand against Connor specifically and this ideology in general.

Everyone might not have been a rabid racist but many were comfortable with maintaining the status quo of Jim Crow. Not just Bull Connor. This is obvious from the images we see of the people that would attack protestors and the Freedom Riders. Even with new laws enacted, I highly doubt that at the end of Jim Crow, these people sincerely changed their views overnight. What’s more likely is that they stopped sharing their views publicly.

The governor of Alabama at that time, George Wallace, also stood in firm opposition to integration. He went so far as to state “segregation now, segregation forever” in his inaugural speech. But what stood out to me was Wallace being interviewed for 4 Little Girls as an older man trying to downplay his role in history. The entire exchange was cringeworthy.

Questioned about his past racist rhetoric, Wallace trots out his supposedly Black best friend which it seems every racist person seems to keep on deck. It’s likely written in the racist’s handbook that you can refute any accusations of racism by simply stating that you have a Black friend and/or have had a Black person visit your home. Not to say that people of different age groups can’t be friends but this guy looks quite a bit younger than Wallace. What made me question Wallace’s claims is that the guy looked confused and completely caught off guard. It’s the way I might look if I were walking down the street and someone I’d seen maybe once threw their arm around me and told the people with them we were best friends.

Instead of answering the question and explaining his past views and how he’s changed since then, he mostly denies being racist. He goes on and on about liking Black people. Wallace patronizingly calls the guy over, using his finger like you might call a dog, and then gushes about how they’re inseparable and have traveled together. And the man says absolutely nothing; he just looks like he wishes that he could be anywhere else in the world. If anything, Wallace seems a bit oblivious to how weird the exchange comes across. Wallace might consider him his best friend but I don’t think this guy considers Wallace his best friend.

The Civil Rights Movement typically refers to the period from about the 1940s to the 1960s but Black people had been pushing for their civil rights since at least the abolitionist movements of the 1800s. Black activism continued through and after Reconstruction with individuals such as Frederick Douglass, Ida B. Wells, T. Thomas Fortune, and others agitating and pushing for equal rights for Black people. But I think part of the difference with the Civil Rights Movement is that photo and video coverage of protests and incidents were more readily available. There are clips of both Bull Connor and Wallace speaking in rather racist terms during the Civil Rights Movement. Connor had passed away by the time 4 Little Girls was released and here was Wallace trying to clean up his legacy or at least put a spin on it.

Often, when someone passes away as a matter of courtesy, people choose to focus on their positive attributes and/or the good things they’ve done in life rather than their faults and transgressions. This can sometimes result in a person being deified or the story of their life and characteristics being sanitized. With these hate-filled individuals who are being discussed, quite often excuses are made for them. It’s reasoned that they were a product of their time as though that’s acceptable.

In laying the groundwork and explaining all of these various factors, you gain a real understanding of the atmosphere of the city, particularly as felt by Black people. It’s one of these things where you know what’s going to happen but there’s still this ominous foreshadowing. As the time gets closer and closer, the family members are describing their last moments with these young girls leading up to the bombing. It creates a very eerie feeling.

A story that has always stood out to me was Mr. McNair, Barbara McNair’s dad, reminiscing about him making a chicken with his daughter. This moment in itself probably wasn’t thought of as being significant. But the tragedy that occurred shortly thereafter added so much meaning to that moment. It’s one of these things where you remember where you were and the moments leading up to a significant event in your life.

Because the church had become a gathering place for the movement, it became a target. The people who attacked the church were trying to stand in the way of progress. Their act of terrorism was intended to intimidate the Black community. Killing anyone is wrong. But this attack on a church and in the process an attack on children was an absolute act of cowardice.

I’d seen 4 Little Girls before but it was quite some time ago. I don’t know what I thought happened to these girls that resulted in their deaths. But somehow during my recent viewing, I was shocked by the post-mortem images. I’ve seen the aftermath of bombings and building collapses on the news where people are being rescued and bodies are being removed. I knew these girls died in the bombing but never made the mental connection or at least never imagined what their injuries might have been.

Being in a building where explosive devices were planted and having building materials and other forms of debris hit and strike their bodies caused their deaths. I’m not squeamish but I found the images very hard to watch. I like true crime and usually have no issues with crime scene or autopsy photos of adults in general or kids as long as you can’t see their injuries. On the one hand, I feel compelled to warn you to look away if you’re squeamish. But, at the same time, I think it’s important to see because it makes real the atrocity that was committed upon these little girls.

I’ve always felt that the natural course of things is for a child, preferably as an adult, to bury their parents. The reverse where a parent buries their child has always felt unnatural to me. I couldn’t imagine and I would hate to experience having to bury a child. Losing a child to illness or an accident is bad enough but to lose your child in such a heinous manner is unimaginable.

In the aftermath of the bombing, the activists as well as the regular citizens of Birmingham were angry, hurt, and heartbroken at these four little girls being murdered in the blast. But part of the offense of this attack is that it was carried out against a church. Churches, regardless of whatever your religious beliefs might be, are regarded by most people as being sacred places. Whether or not you’re a member of a church, congregation, or religion, these places should be respected. They should be safe havens where people can seek sanctuary. It feels especially savage, disrespectful, and cowardly to attack a church.

There’s a natural reaction after an attack like this, at least initially, to want some kind of revenge or retribution. Diane Nash mentions that they came to a crossroads of deciding between seeking vengeance in the form of going out, finding the people that did this, and retaliating. Or keeping in line with what had been their approach to push for equal rights and civil rights in hopes that it would offer Black people within Birmingham protection against things like this happening again in the future.

Discussing the funeral, like the bombing itself, is terrible. But when it got to the point of the family members and other attendees describing being at the funeral, it was heartbreaking. You could see and hear them reliving their pain. To watch these people speak about experiencing this tragedy and the aftermath of adjusting to life without these kids, it feels like you’re there with them.

People speak about how this tragic event helped to galvanize more widespread support for the Civil Rights Movement. It helped people outside of the South, White people, in particular, see and better understand the true nature of what was going on in the South. To a degree, it helped to bring about some change. All these decades after the end of the Civil Rights Movement and it seems like we’ve made so much progress. Or so we might like to think.

The film zooms out a bit and touches on the history of church burnings. I knew that a lot of churches had been burned as a means of intimidation as they were targeted as a result of serving as headquarters and gathering places for the movement. When I saw the clips of church burnings that were being discussed, I assumed they were from back during the Civil Rights Era. It caught me off guard when I realized that the church burnings that were being discussed took place during the 1990s. I was a kid at that time and not paying attention to the news, and that’s if these stories were even being covered in New York City.

I couldn’t help but think about the Mother Emanuel AME Church shooting that took place in Charleston a few years ago where nine people were murdered during bible study. So not just in the 1990s but even more decades later we’re still dealing with the issue of attacks on Black churches. And 4 Little Girls points out that when you go back even before the Civil Rights Movement to Reconstruction, the Ku Klux Klan was burning churches, crosses, and committing other fire-related forms of terrorism. These acts of terrorism have been a part of America’s racial history for quite some time. It’s been consistently used as a tool for demotivating, intimidating, and terrorizing Black communities, especially those that are attempting to elevate themselves and achieve any degree of progress.

There is some coverage of the investigation into the bombings or more accurately, the prosecution of the suspects. It’s believed that there were four people involved in the bombing but only enough evidence to secure a conviction against one, Bob Chambliss. I think this was one of the weaker points of 4 Little Girls. Or maybe not a weaker point but rather an area that I wish had been fleshed out a bit more.

A good level of detail is offered about the girls and their lives in Birmingham, before the bombing as well as their funerals and life after. Yet it felt like very little time was spent on the trial which is a topic about which I was curious. There was a discussion of an FBI report about the people that were involved. But I would have welcomed a bit more information about what the investigation entailed though I wasn’t very interested in learning about the murderers’ background.

Keeping in mind the reality that many of the Birmingham police officers were members of or affiliated with the Ku Klux Klan, what impact, if any, was this believed to have had on the investigation? The bombing took place in 1963 but it seems that the court case didn’t happen until sometime in the 70s. What happened in the interim?

People spoke of their desire to not have these little girl’s deaths be in vain but had Birmingham experienced meaningful change over the years? Nowadays when a child goes missing or is the victim of some crime, there’s at least a temporary push for a change in habits. In addition to speaking to their children about segregation, did parents now also speak to their children about the possibility of violence? It would be fair to say that maybe the desired change remained unfulfilled to a degree as there were still church burnings many years later.

I thought 4 Little Girls was very good but felt a little uneven as it began strong and maintained that momentum through the girls’ funerals. But because some of the emotional intensity dissipated, the latter part felt like it lost some steam. I didn’t need a 5-hour documentary but I would have liked it to be a little longer, maybe another 15 or so minutes with the same level of detail throughout. Yet, this is a testament to how good 4 Little Girls is in the sense that it left me wanting just a bit more.

Overall, 4 Little Girls is an incredibly heartbreaking but also moving and important documentary. It’s one of those films about a sad event that’s terrible but evokes so much emotion while also making you think. In a sense, it shows how things have changed but also unfortunately how even in the present so many things have remained the same.

I’m always conflicted about referring to books or movies of this nature as “good” as the term seems ill-fitting and insensitive but I think the word “insightful” would be more accurate. I highly recommend either checking this out for the first time if you haven’t seen it already or watching it again. From my experience, I’d seen it in the past but still managed to learn something and pick up on new things while rewatching.

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