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Weekend Read: “We go on electing politicians who heat the kettles of hate.”

Addie Mae Collins, Denise McNair, Carole Robertson and Cynthia Wesley were getting ready for church in the basement ladies’ lounge when the bomb exploded.

Addie Mae, 14, and Denise, 11, had been planning to sing in the choir; Carole, 14, and Cynthia, 14, were going to serve as ushers.

Klansmen robbed them of much more than the events of that Youth Sunday when they set dynamite under the steps of Birmingham’s 16th Street Baptist Church, a hub for civil rights activism. When it went off at 10:21 a.m., taking the lives of those four little girls and injuring 20 other people, the bomb shook the entire country and brought national attention to the deadly fight for civil rights being waged in Alabama.

Today is the 55th anniversary of that terrible bombing, and the words that Eugene Patterson, then editor of the Atlanta Constitution, wrote the day after it happened could almost apply to the circumstances we find ourselves in today.

He wrote:

A Negro mother wept in the street Sunday morning in front of a Baptist Church in Birmingham. In her hand she held a shoe, one shoe, from the foot of her dead child. We hold that shoe with her.

Every one of us in the white South holds that small shoe in his hand.

It is too late to blame the sick criminals who handled the dynamite. The FBI and the police can deal with that kind. The charge against them is simple. They killed four children.

Only we can trace the truth, Southerner - you and I. We broke those children’s bodies.

We watched the stage set without staying it. We listened to the prologue unbestirred. We saw the curtain opening with disinterest. We have heard the play.

We - who go on electing politicians who heat the kettles of hate.

We - who raise no hand to silence the mean and little men who have their nigger jokes.

We - who stand aside in imagined rectitude and let the mad dogs that run in every society slide their leashes from our hand, and spring.

We - the heirs of a proud South, who protest its worth and demand it recognition - we are the ones who have ducked the difficult, skirted the uncomfortable, caviled at the challenge, resented the necessary, rationalized the unacceptable, and created the day surely when these children would die.

First published in the Atlanta Constitution on September 16, 1963, then read aloud that night on the CBS Evening News with Walter Cronkite, the column was part of a surge of support for federal civil rights legislation and a campaign for voting rights that followed the tragedy at the 16th Street Baptist Church. You can read the rest of ithere.

Today, the names of those four little girls are etched into the Civil Rights Memorial in Montgomery, along with the names of three dozen other martyrs of the movement, a permanent reminder of their sacrifice.

For all of us in the South — and around the rest of the country — the march continues. 

The Editors

P.S. Here are some other pieces that we think are valuable this week:

Photo Associated Press

SPLC's Weekend Reads are a weekly summary of the most important reporting and commentary from around the country on civil rights, economic and racial inequity, and hate and extremism. Sign up to receive the Weekend Read every Saturday morning.