U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson, the first Black woman on the nation’s highest court, spoke on Friday, September 15 at 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham for the 60th anniversary memorial service in honor of the four girls killed in the 1963 bombing at the church.
Though she stressed that she was raised by parents who made sure she knew Alabama’s rich history, Jackson shared that this week marked her first visit to the state.
“I felt in my spirit that I had to come,” she said to us, explaining why she’d decided to make the trip. “I’ve come to Alabama to commemorate and mourn, celebrate and warn,” she said.
Jackson acknowledged the sacrifice of all who came before her, who cleared the path for her to reach the heights of her career. She mourned the cost of progress and paid homage to people of courage and conviction. She celebrated how far we’ve come.
But she warned us that we still have a long way to go. She warned us that oppressors know that knowledge is a powerful tool, a tool that helps us fight for freedom.
As a writer, I was struck by Jackson’s emphasis on the importance of sharing stories of truth.
“We have to own even the darkest parts of our past, understand them and vow never to repeat them,” said Jackson, who was raised in Florida by parents who were schoolteachers, parents who taught her civil rights history — unadulterated. “If we are going to continue to move forward as a nation, we cannot allow concerns about discomfort to displace knowledge, truth or history.”
Yes, of course, much of our country’s history is hard to hear or even think about but, Jackson said, “The uncomfortable lessons teach us the most.”
She went on to say, “We can’t learn from past mistakes we do not know exist.”
Jackson spoke on Friday morning after the tolling of bells at 10:22 a.m., to remember the moment a bomb blast on Sept. 15, 1963, killed Addie Mae Collins, 14, Denise McNair, 11, Carole Rosamond Robertson, 14, and Cynthia Wesley, 14.
The memorial service drew more than 1,000 people including filmmaker Spike Lee, who directed the 1997 documentary, 4 Little Girls. With the church filled to capacity, hundreds of people had to listen to Jackson’s speech as it was broadcast at Kelly Ingram Park near a statue that pays homage to the four little girls.
Say Her Name
Before Jackson took the pulpit, we heard from several elected officials such as City of Birmingham Mayor Randall Woodfin, Congresswoman Terri Sewell, and Minister Vaughan Gething, Minister of the Economy of Wales.
Each speaker reminded us that it’s not enough to remember the “four little girls.” We must acknowledge each girl by her name — Addie, Denise, Carole, and Cynthia – and recognize that each one had their own hopes and dreams that were never able to be realized.
But all who took to the podium also noted that the tragic deaths of Addie, Denise, Carole, and Cynthia were as pivotal as they were painful. They marked a turning point in the civil rights movement. Out of horror came hope. Soon the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 would be passed.
“We can because they can’t” Rep. Sewell turned to Jackson to say during her remarks. Because of the tide that turned after the murder of those four Black girls, another Black girl named Terri would one day become the first Black woman elected to Alabama’s congressional delegation. A Black girl named Kamala would one day become Vice President of the United States. And a Black girl named Ketanji would one day become an associate justice on the nation’s highest court.
Let the Church Say
Despite all the dignitaries in the room, Friday’s commemoration program felt very much like a church service with the Carlton Reese Memorial Unity Choir and Miles College Choir filling the air with soul-stirring hymns.
We even got a Sunday school lesson. Minister Valerie R. Harris shared that on September 15, 1963, the theme of the Sunday School lesson had been “A Love That Forgives.” Minister Harris went on to urge us to consider our own lives and the times when we deserved punishment but received grace. And she gave us the recipe for forgiveness:
- Remembering how much you’ve been forgiven
- Relinquishing your right to get even
- Responding to evil with good
- Repeating the process as long as necessary
Before the program began another Black woman reporter and I were chatting and we both commented on how difficult we expected the service to be. “I fully expect to cry off my makeup,” I told her.
But I didn’t. The mood of the moment wasn’t one of sorrow. Instead, it was one of hope and unity.
Minister Gething of Wales remarked how welcoming the atmosphere was that day, how there was a feeling of togetherness in the air.
A glance around the room revealed people of different races and ages gathered to remember the past, reflect on the present and reconcile the future.
Former U.S. Sen. Doug Jones, who as a U.S. attorney prosecuted the bombers and also led President Joe Biden’s search for what he promised would be the first Black woman on the Supreme Court, introduced Jackson. During his introduction, Jones noted that Jackson’s presence alone was enough to inspire. She didn’t have to say a word to move us all.
Yet the final words of talk felt like a rallying cry: “And still we rise.”
The full memorial service can be viewed here.