September 11, 2013 / 7:15 PM / 5 years ago

Alabama city to remember historic church bombing 50 years later

BIRMINGHAM, Alabama (Reuters) - The image of 14-year-old Cynthia Wesley’s decapitated body buried in the exploded rubble of a Baptist church here has haunted her brother, Fate Morris, for five decades.

“I should have died with her,” said Morris, who was 11 when the bomb set off by Ku Klux Klan members killed four young girls at the 16th Street Baptist Church in 1963.

It is a memory neither Morris nor the town of Birmingham, Alabama, can erase - a tragic chapter in a violent era that ultimately led to the end of the segregation of blacks in public places such as restaurants and schools.

This week, a series of events leading up to the bombing’s 50th anniversary on Sunday will commemorate the lives of the girls and the sweeping societal changes sparked by their deaths with the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which bans discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, sex or national origin.

Wesley, Addie Mae Collins, and Carole Robertson, all 14, and 11-year-old Denise McNair perished in the blast that happened just before Sunday School classes were to start, in a town that was the epicenter for an escalating national divide over civil rights.

“It is a sad story, but there is a joy that came out of it,” said Sarah Collins Rudolph, bomb survivor and sister of victim Addie Mae Collins.

Speakers this week include Birmingham native Condoleezza Rice, former Secretary of State, at a U.S. Conference of Mayors meeting on Friday.

Rice was an 8-year-old in Birmingham when her friend, Denise McNair, was killed in the blast.

“How could these people hate us so much?” was the question Rice asked after it happened, according to an MSNBC interview earlier this month.

On Wednesday, about 5,000 volunteers are commemorating with their hands, in a day of service projects to improve public spaces. Thursday, the U.S. Conference of Mayors will host panel discussions presenting a 10-point plan against racism.

Comedian Bill Cosby and filmmaker Spike Lee will speak at a Saturday panel discussion, and Saturday night, Jamie Foxx will host a concert featuring singer-songwriters Jill Scott and Charlie Wilson. Lee’s new documentary “Four Little Girls” will be screened on Sunday.

On the day of the anniversary, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder and Andrew Young, a former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, are scheduled to speak at a community memorial in the downtown park where marchers clashed repeatedly with police during the 1950s and 60s.

At 10:22 a.m., bells will toll for the moment the bomb went off. And then at the 16th Street Baptist Church, the exact Sunday School lesson that was interrupted by the bomb will be taught to church-goers.

Its theme: Love your enemies.

Edited by Karen Brooks, Greg McCune and Chris Reese

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